In the News: How do you fix a brand like NASCAR?

Our strategy and insights director Simon Kearney shared his views on the auto-racing giant’s drive for new audiences with The Drum.

“Our roots deepen, our ride continues.” This message greeted Nascar’s roughly 3 million followers as the brand unveiled a new look and partnership, which – as part of a broader effort – aimed to refresh the organization’s look and feel in order to reach new audiences and be seen as moving with the times.

Almost five years later and the relative success of this move still carries with it a big TBD. The sport has embraced diversity, in large part due to the emergence of driver William Darrell ‘Bubba’ Wallace Jr., a graduate of Nascar’s ‘Drive for Diversity’ program and the first Black Nascar driver in 50 years to win one of the top three touring series. Basketball legend Michael Jordan now also co-owns a racing team, 23XI, opening the sport up to millions of potential new fans and providing a highly lucrative crossover opportunity.

The controversy of change

But change hasn’t come without controversy. Nascar has, in some instances, been painfully slow to move with the times. In 2015, the racing brand passively asked fans not to display the confederate flag at races, which came across as a half-hearted gesture at best. And although officially banned from racetracks as of last year, it would be the same year that Wallace found a noose hanging in the Talladega garage assigned to him. These incidents came to symbolize an organization that’s behind the pace of change.

Calls for change are something sporting associations and brands alike are wrestling with as the balance of power continues to shift away from the organization and towards the individual. Whether that be the NFL’s response to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, The United States Soccer Federation being sued by their own superstars, or Lewis Hamilton’s pioneering work within and beyond Formula One, the message is clear – the current system isn’t working and won’t be tolerated.

This dynamic has major implications for the role of brands and the ways in which a rebranding effort such Nascar’s can serve to modernize and revitalize a business’s fortunes. In the past, brands served as a central hub and gatekeeper, controlling and carefully curating the message it put out into the world. Today’s landscape, however, is both different and difficult to manage.

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