F1 has come under renewed pressure to ban alcohol sponsorship, but sponsor decals no longer have the power to influence as they once did, explains Kate Walker.
As a sport, Formula 1 finds itself under external attack on a regular basis. We were fuelled by the demon tobacco, we guzzle the planet’s dwindling resources of energy, and we hypocritically promote alcohol brands on high-speed vehicles while telling the world not to drink and drive.
In the weeks surrounding last month’s Monaco Grand Prix, F1 came under renewed pressure to ban sponsorship related to alcohol following the publication of a report from 57 European health authorities which revealed that alcohol brands were featured once every five seconds during the 2014 Monaco race.
It may sound convincing, but as advertising and marketing have moved into the neural realm, traditional advertising such as billboards and sponsor logos have long since lost the impact they once had.
Sponsor decals no longer enough
Danish author Martin Lindstrom has written extensively about neuromarketing, and is perhaps best known for Buyology, a 2008 study into precisely what it is that makes people buy.
With the surfeit of advertising seen in the modern world, through every form of media, traditional marketing methods that worked on our grandparents no longer have an impact on the current generation.
In a world where consumers are exposed to an average of 4,000 commercial messages every day, simply being exposed to a brand or its logo no longer has the power to influence purchasing decisions.
What Lindstrom discovered over the course of his research was that to be truly effective, these days advertising needs to trigger an emotional response in the psyche, and not a rational response in the cerebral cortex.
Successful marketing relies on tapping into a consumer’s long-term memory through associating the product with positive emotions - appealing to base emotions instead of rational thought makes it easier for the brand to engineer our emotional response, without customers being aware of the manipulation.
Brands now must tell a story
Luxury watch brand Patek Philippe achieves this through their print campaigns with the combination of idealised family photos and an incredibly effective tagline: 'You never really own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.'
Taking a fundamental human value (family, and the continuation of one’s line) and associating it with a sense of both history and future is a powerful emotional hit, one likely to influence the purchasing decision of someone in the market for an expensive watch.
Many rival luxe watch brands, in contrast, have built their success on a long-term association with sport, and the emotional highs and lows that are part of the story of competition.
It is the story-telling aspect that is vital, for it is within these stories that our emotional connection to brands is built.
Conversely, billboards and plain logos on cars are akin to flashcards posted on bedroom walls prior to exams - unless we actively engage with the flashcards by studying them, the information they contain will not pass into the long-term memory.
Simple exposure has now been shown to do very little in a world of commercial overload.
Using 'experiences' to sell
Johnnie Walker has been involved in F1 for years, with both trackside advertising and on-car logos. But for the majority of drinkers exposed to the brand through sport sponsorship, Johnnie Walker’s presence is unlikely to influence many purchasing decisions.
This is why these brands are now being far more innovative, taking leaf after leaf out of Lindstrom’s book. At this year’s Monaco Grand Prix, Johnnie Walker were behind what they called an “intimate Symphony in Blue experience, which showcased how imagery, sound, light and the tactile environment can influence the perception and taste of a whisky hailing from the four corners of Scotland”.
Walking through a multisensory environment filled with reminders of the brand creates an emotional response almost certain to sway the purchasing decisions of the majority of those who have shared in the experience.
Experiences such as these are limited to a select few, yet have considerably more power to influence than the logos and brands flashing up on screen to millions of viewers around the world.
Focussing on the wrong problem
Marketeers are getting smarter in their ways and means of influencing us, and the results of Lindstrom’s research border on the terrifying when you consider the extent of emotional manipulation and influence we are all subjected to on a daily basis.
Rather than attempting to pressure F1 into dropping a form of sponsorship that has been shown to have little effect, perhaps the European health agencies might consider looking into the long-term mental health issues associated with emotionally manipulative marketing.
Over the past two decades in the United States, deaths related to drunk driving have fallen 36 percent (63 percent among under-21s), while in the EU road deaths have halved over the past decade.
There is still a long way to go, of course, but progress is being made.