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McLaren Mercedes driver Jenson Button, of Britain celebrates his victory as second place Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel, of Germany, looks on at the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/CP Photo)
McLaren Mercedes driver Jenson Button, of Britain celebrates his victory as second place Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel, of Germany, looks on at the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/CP Photo)

Motorsports

Motorsport teams and sponsors enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship Add to ...

Few racing fans have likely heard of Michael Bennett and Larry Deas, but the pair of Axalta Coating Systems executives may just been given the toughest job in motorsport.

Bennett, Axalta’s North American marketing manager, and Deas, the manager of Axalta Racing are the point men for the company’s rebranding of the sponsor relationship between four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and the former DuPont operation that goes back more than two decades.

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“While we as a company have a challenge of re-branding, we see this as an opportunity – having an established racer like Jeff with our new name and logo on the vehicle is a tremendous asset,” Bennett said.

“Not only does Jeff have name recognition and a huge presence but as a person, he is very, very good in front of customers. He is very personable and engaging and if wasn’t a race car driver, he would be a salesman. He is one of the best in the business.”

Last August, DuPont sold its car paint business – DuPont Coating Systems – to investment firm Carlyle Group for $4.9-billion (U.S.). It was then renamed Axalta.

Although the company and marketing team around the NASCAR sponsorship remains essentially the same ones that have been synonymous with the No. 24 Chevy since Gordon broke into NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series late in 1992, trying to get fans to identify with the new entity may take a bit of work.

The original deal that was signed two decades ago because DuPont wanted to capture the Hendrick Automotive Group’s business has transformed into a two-decade relationship that is one of the company’s key business development tools. In addition to running a hugely successful four-car NASCAR team that includes Gordon, Rick Hendrick’s car dealership network is the sixth largest in the U.S.

Race car driver Jeff Gordon poses before the NASCAR Sprint Cup Sharpie 500 in 2008.
 

Axalta’s plan is to focus more on the existing products that customers and fans recognize, and then ease them into getting acquainted with the new moniker. So far this year, it has been using the No. 24 to show off its Cromax Pro product, which was the primary sponsor on the car a week ago in Texas.

“We are the same people, our products are the same products and our customers are the same customers, and Jeff is the same champion,” Deas said.

“I see this as a continuation, it’s our 21st year.”

But there are challenges after being linked to the same driver for an extended period. For example, before Axalta gets to a point where they see fans starting to identify with the new name, it will have to go to work on Gordon first.

“My biggest thing right now is trying not to say DuPont,” Gordon said about the switch.

“Really, all the people I am working with, the same paint brands like Cromax Pro, they are the same as what I have been dealing with. It is just a new company.”

While Axalta adjusts to its new reality, Formula One sponsor TW Steel also faces change this year as the Dutch watchmaker must forge a new relationship with the Force India team.

The company, which entered F1 three years ago when it signed a deal with Lotus team, decided not to continue with the outfit when the agreement expired at the end of 2012. While happy with the success of its sponsorship of the Lotus outfit, it was simply time for the watchmaker to move on.

“In the first year in F1, we gave credibility to TW Steel, people began to notice the brand, and it gave retailers confidence because we were investing in the brand,” said Stewart Bain, the company’s chief commercial officer.

“In years 2 and 3, we began to look a lot more at revenue generation and utilizing the sponsorship program to drive commercial opportunity globally. It allowed us to sell a significant amount of Lotus Formula One TW Steel watches, but looking forward it was a case of asking: ’Well, can we continue to sell more Lotus watches or have we reached a tipping point?’”

Force India was a good fit for the next step because the watch maker is targeting the emerging markets in India and the fact that its ownership and other sponsors are from that country ties directly into that strategy.

Even though Lotus is a frontrunner and Force India is a mid-field team, the company saw a bigger business opportunity, which was more important than being with a squad that is more likely to win.

“We would never write a cheque for the sake of being in F1,” Bain said.

“Our three years with Lotus was extremely successful and we achieved or surpassed everything we wanted, but we need to use F1 to deliver a new set of commercial objectives.”

On the other side of the sponsorship equation is Hugo Boss, which has been a partner of the McLaren team for 32 years. It’s the longest continuous sponsorship in motor racing and the clothing maker has no plans to change it.

“We are devoted fans at Hugo Boss and McLaren have been devoted fans of us. It’s like a marriage and we are thrilled to be a part of it,” said Hugo Boss Canada’s managing director Lanita Layton.

“And let’s face it, our brand looks great on racing drivers and they love the brand.”

During its time with McLaren, the Boss brand has been promoted over the years by a who’s who of F1, including multiple world champions Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Fernando Alonso.

Today, 2009 world champion Jenson Button is its marquee representative with the McLaren team, which he pointed out is not owned by a manufacturer and relies heavily on its relationships for success.

“For us, sponsors are everything. We need big sponsors and big partners to be involved in McLaren or otherwise we wouldn’t be at the front in F1,” Button said.

“Plus, I really love doing Hugo Boss stuff. Not every sponsor you enjoy – I am not going to lie, but I must say Hugo Boss events are good and I get to wear nice clothes while doing them.”

While TW Steel looks for new markets and Hugo Boss sticks with tried and true, Axalta will spend most of the 2013 season working to ensure the new name becomes a strongly recognized as the old DuPont label.

While it won’t be easy, having someone like Gordon as your point man is not a bad thing.

“If a significant business entity were sold and rebranded without someone like Jeff Gordon and the notoriety of the No. 24 race team, you are essentially going to have to start that brand with almost zero equity,” Deas said.

“It’s our belief that with Jeff, the No. 24 team and Hendrick Motorsport we have an advantage, and we are going to build on that.”

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)

Twitter: @jpappone

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