When Formula E was first announced, traditional race fans weren’t exactly chomping at the bit to watch the all-electric open-wheel series. For them, the excitement of racing was intimately tied to the noise and power of combustion engines, and an electric powertrain simply wouldn’t do the trick. That wasn’t something FE could change — instead, the series turned to social media marketing to find a new fanbase.
We at Jalopnik recently got our hands on some documents from the World Advertising Research Center, and one of them — titled “Turning defence into attack” — analyzed how FE had to turn to unconventional social media campaigns to help grow the sport.
Basically, WARC’s research found that motorsport fans value excitement over literally everything else in their racing series, but the concept of electric racing was pretty much the exact opposite — and that was something the series desperately needed to change as it headed into its fifth season. Basically, as manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz and Audi joined the ranks, FE realized it needed to increase its fanbase by 20 percent during the course of the fifth season.
Here’s a little more from the study:
Formula One is loved for its jeopardy: breathtaking speed, tight chicanes and male ego combine to create the potential for unexpected calamity. But it’s not just the visual spectacle that captivates them; the noise and smell are equally important, combining for a holistic assault on the senses.
The study pinpoints a handful of problems it saw right away:
- Combustion-engine racing is deemed passionate; electric racing was deemed logical by fans
- FE promotion focused on prototype-esque, aerodynamic cars and faceless drivers as opposed to promoting personalities
- Manufacturers wanted to get rid of pit stops, which were admittedly goofy but provided an element of surprise and strategy to the race
To combat some of these impressions, FE changed its social media marketing strategy to focus on the drivers; because all FE cars were the same, it could be marketed as a true driver’s championship.
And this is how we ended up with things like Attack Mode.
In FE, Attack Mode is the application of an additional 35 kW of power that drivers must access during the race by driving over a particular section of road. We ended up there because the marketing committee at FE decided that one of the biggest associations people have with electricity is gaming, and they wanted to introduce a gamified element to the races as a way to, in part, trigger warm and fuzzy childhood memories of playing Mario Kart and to make the racing a little more unpredictable.
Has the marketing worked? FE reported a viewership growth of 24 percent in season five, but it’s not clear if that boost came specifically down to Attack Mode, nor is it clear how that growth has continued in recent years.
From my perspective as a race fan, more people are interested in FE than ever before, and that very likely does come down, in part, to some marketing. I don’t know, though, that Attack Mode was the big determining factor for the series — and I’ve heard plenty of criticism of the sport’s desperate attempts to connect with younger fanbases through things like video games or NFTs.
But the series now faces another issue: Accessibility. I joked recently that it’s easier for me to physically attend a Formula E race than it is for me to find a legal way to watch it in the United States, but it’s painfully true. The only race I’ve watched live this year was the one I attended in Mexico City; otherwise, events are tape-delayed or just not available at all without a VPN. And it’s not much easier for fans in other countries, either.
FE’s marketing strategies have been great — but it needs to start working on its base-level accessibility to truly make things happen.