Why Formula E? What is its reason for being?
Our story begins in a restaurant in Paris, with the President of the International Automobile Federation, Jean Todt, in attendance with a few other people. They had this idea of creating an alternative, yet accessible, series that wasn’t a petrol-led motorsport. That was the early days.
From the very beginning, Formula E has been a platform to help embrace and accelerate the adoption of clean mobility solutions. In global issues such as climate change, sports can act as a trojan horse – a way to bring more people to a topic that’s appealing and easy to embrace. Formula E is built from that principle.
In trying to be more relevant, we like to say, “bring as many people as possible one step closer to electric vehicles.” If I were to translate that in a more ‘purpose-driven’ way, I would say that our ambition is to create motorsport experiences that can excite a generation to embrace clean energy and electric vehicles.
And we do believe that we’re exciting a generation. What is fascinating to me is hyper-growth. It’s now Season Five, there are 400 million people watching on TV, 7 million people on social media, sold out events, more and more partners joining us.
That’s our 5-year-old story today.
To what degree do you act as a sports company versus a TV business or another kind of entertainment business?
The ABB FIA Formula E championship is a platform with 3 main products: The Watch (the TV product and the content), the Go (the event itself) and the Play (the gaming).
We’re trying to be as holistic as possible with what we can offer. It’s becoming less relevant to make a distinction between sports and entertainment. I call Formula E a sports-entertainment organization in the sense that, you have to create a show (which is appealing for an audience) and to do that you have to innovate your TV product, how you engage with your fans, and how you can engage a new generation (with gaming for example).
It’s a very interesting challenge, and I would say one of the key things we want to work on in the future is maximizing our touchpoints with people. It’s not just about the race anymore. We can race all year long, but we need to engage with people digitally and in real life. So sports-entertainment for us is how we’re thinking through these 3 products, but the big distinction for us is what we’re trying to do with electric vehicles, e-mobility and clean energy.
How do you balance the needs of a growing fanbase, the needs of your partners, and the needs of your investors?
Fortunately, they’re all well aligned in their ambition! To be a purpose-driven organization today, to be more relevant to customers, you will need to connect with what I call a societal topic. Our fans share our motive around climate change. We are linked (not necessarily by choice, but by reality) to the health issues that are related to air pollution.
Our partners have an ambition around sustainability and some have an ambition around electric vehicles. But at the end of the day, we know (and I think it’s what makes this series and this championship unique) we’re all fighting for something that is bigger than what we want to do individually. On the investor point, Liberty Global and Discovery joined the series a long time ago now and are the first supporters of this ambition.
For us, the work that we’ve done in the last year about clarifying our purpose, was all about aligning everyone with what I call the ecosystem of purpose. We have to be clear about our brand pillars and how each of them could embrace and amplify that ecosystem. This makes it much easier to be relevant and to be aligned.
Often, customer expectation moves faster than brands can keep up with, so what are you doing to keep Formula E relevant for your existing fanbase while also trying to attract new fans?
For us it’s not just about being an exciting sport, we need to be relevant. We’re in city centres. Hyper-localized events that sit right at the heart of where people are.
The new generation is continually changing the way they consume content. They are being offered new ways to participate in sport, so we need to focus on innovating. Our major innovation in the last year was ATTACK MODE, which is an entirely new element in the race itself. It allows the driver, in a specific part of the track, to speed up in a “Mario Kart” style. Innovation in the TV product, or at the event level, are also important.
We were one of the first sports to bring real people participation in the competition. We created FANBOOST, which gives an extra bit of speed to the drivers. So fans have a direct impact on the racing element. This year we just launched our new live race gaming, where, using their phones, people can race against the drivers while they’re racing in real-time.
Things like FANBOOST, the way we’re integrating ATTACK MODE through AR. We need to continue bringing that. Why? Because we realized that the new generation is as concerned about consuming sport through TV and live events as they are with gaming. We want to be more unpredictable than other motorsports. Right now, the level of unpredictability in the race is potentially the highest in any motorsport. The season just gone (season 5) had 14 races and 9 winners.
The third point is to remain very relevant and clear on our purpose. It sounds a bit cheesy, but after 20 years’ experience working with purpose-led brands, there needs to be an ongoing effort to think innovation, think gamification, think content through this angle, and to maintain relevance. The last part we’re going to push is expanding the number of touchpoints we’re going to have. We have 12 weekends with 14 races, but we need to create a year-long fanbase.
It seems like Formula E’s tone of voice is quite tongue in cheek. Is that intentional? Is it a rebellion against traditional motorsport?
I don’t think there is any desire to be against other motorsports. We’re lucky to have access to a younger generation on social media. Our fanbase is much younger and consume the content in a specific way.
First, we had to clarify what are the territories or topics that are legitimate for us to talk about (such as the championship and the driver) and how we want to talk about it. To be accessible, not take ourselves too seriously and to be relevant for specific audiences, really matters. I’m reminded of the Mike Tyson quote, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Social media is kind of like that. You’re not taking a punch in your face, but you have to adjust yourself all the time.
We have an amazing team around content creation, and we’re creating a lot of content that we’re testing. Some of them that you’re seeing around gamification has received an amazing amount of positive feedback. I was amazed.
And what I mean by that is with the traditional way that motorsports should ‘speak.’ To be a risk taker, you can fail, but if you try you can sometimes generate a good outcome. It doesn’t mean that all our content will be like that, but I don’t think we’re against anyone or anything. We’re starting from the audience, trying to create content that we think is relevant for them, based on territories that are credible and legitimate for us to talk about. Then we let the creativity speak for itself.
The amount of emotion that sits behind, not just being a fan behind Formula E, but being a fan of sport in general, is quite tribal. What would be your advice to big corporates on how to engage with their customers in a way that captures more of that emotional, tribal element?
The new generation of fans embrace the social value of a brand. They sometimes have multiple identities (in real life and in digital), they are (in sport at least) more loyal to the driver or the player than to the team. And they expect to be engaged in multiple touchpoints all the time.
So I don’t know if this could be considered advice, but I think all of that means sometimes we aren’t even controlling our own brand. And in sport in general, when you look at any football team, the way the people are wearing the jerseys etc. – you can’t control that. You can amplify, you can listen to what they say and be reactive, but you can’t control one person.
What I’ve seen in sport, and in Formula E, is the notion of transmedia. This means that each element of your brand is a touchpoint with a fan. The helmet, the car, the merchandising element, the content… everything has to be coordinated and amplified.
The last piece of the puzzle is, again, purpose. The purpose needs to be related to something that people can understand, be connected with, and it should not be self-serving. Even if it’s very purposeful, it needs to have a broader societal topic that you can be linked to. For Formula E it’s easier, but I think it’s very important for brands to find their own.
Formula E has a much closer, more collaborative, more working relationship with its partners (like ABB and Allianz) than other organizational sporting series. Do you feel that as well? If so, is this a conscious decision?
Yes, it’s on purpose that we remain very close to what our partners are telling us. It’s easier when you’re a 5-year-old organization to build that with your partner from day 1, and to maintain this relationship, than if you’re a bigger organization where there is potentially less need, or if the dynamic is a bit different. Maybe in 10, 15 years’ time we won’t be able to do what we’re doing now.
B2B, B2C brands are embracing us because of our scale and our access to a younger generation and our purpose. We know we need our partners to continue to grow, and we know we’re providing a platform for them to be able to scale in a way that they wouldn’t be able to do through other partners or through other marketing activations.
What keeps you up at night? What are the big challenges or the things that worry you about Formula E?
The mega challenge that the world is facing: climate change. It keeps me up at night as a citizen, as a human and also as a leader. That aside, there’s a few other things.
The first is data disruption – from how you’re integrating AI, fostering trust, the supply chain, and the link to advertising. The second thing is innovation. I remain clear that you can be the best marketer ever, but if you don’t innovate, your marketing will never be enough. Third is this notion of how you’re protecting and maintaining your purpose, and how you’re being consistent with this. The last is how you can keep your fans and audience engaged and continue to grow. Trust and attention are the two biggest challenges we’re facing. In our sport, we’re all about attention.
Want more? Read our interview with Rich Antoniello, CEO of Complex Networks.