Ford Launches Major Racing Program. NASCAR? Not

Ford-Octane

Racing is a big deal at Ford, especially when it comes to reaching Millennials who really could not care less about more traditional four-wheel speed feasts like NASCAR and drag racing. So the company's new mega-deal with the X-Games franchise is all about new racing forms made popular in Asia and Europe and finding a growing audience of social media-savvy twenty-somethings.

Ford's group VP of global sales and marketing Jim Farley, speaking at a press conference on Thursday, said there is no one way to reach Millennials -- referencing Toyota's Scion division, where he used to work. "I've been doing what I've been doing for more than two decades. Millennials are the heart and soul of the business and there are some other companies who have formed total brands to attract them," he said. "That was a rewarding discovery for me as a leader -- that marketing tactics and product strategy can be totally different."

Farley said the key vehicle in the automaker's efforts to reach the next generation is the Fiesta compact. "It has really been a groundbreaker for us. It may be the most affordable Ford in the U.S., but it's also the most important Ford."

And the car, along with the Fusion sedan, Mustang and Ranger mid-sized truck, is also central to the new X-Games partnership that includes racing, marketing and promotional relationships in four racing categories with Rally Cross Ford Fiesta racer Tanner Foust; Stage Rally racer and one-man Web sensation Ken Block, who also drives a Fiesta; Mustang drift-racer Vaughn Gitten, Jr., and off-road truck racer Brian Deegan, who drives a Ranger.

In addition to creating a social media-fueled experiential program with the racers called Octane Academy, Ford will also be exclusive auto partner with X Games, "which fits perfectly with us as a brand," said Farley. "We have been involved in gaming, and gaming is a big deal for Millennials -- it's a big part of their day."

Farley said the program, and socially driven efforts that preceded it, like the Fiesta Movement campaign (where Web-savvy consumers got to drive the vehicle for several months before it hit the U.S. market) reflects something Farley said he learned over the years: reaching Millennials means having to start really early, especially if one's brand is not really relevant to younger consumers, asking for help and listening.

"If you have something cool, if you give to socially connected people, they will talk about it," said Farley. "In the past, digital and social were seen as a small incubator for marketing, but the scale of social now is huge." He said Fiesta Movement grew awareness of the vehicle to 50% among the cohort. "That's ten cents on the dollar. We learned from that."

He said, in fact, that one of the parameters for choosing the racers in the four categories, in addition to their records, was their social fan base. He added that people who are race fans are also much more likely to buy or consider one's product. "A couple of years ago, we started to engage [racing] talent. As much as it's great to talk about motorsports drivers, they are also incredible content producers -- they get the excitement of it and deliver it every day, often through digital."

Jamie Allison, director of North American motorsports at Ford, said 80% of Ford's Facebook fellowship is under 35, and the four racers Ford has tapped have a combined three million social followers. Allison said the racers are also stars in the digital realm beyond the popularity garnered by their racing success: Tanner is in digital games like "Gran Turismo 5;" Ken Block started the Gymkhana series of extreme driving videos, which were in the YouTube top 10 last year; Gitten is featured in EA's "Need for Speed" game and Deegan founded the "Metal Mulitia" media and merchandise group.

John Felice, Ford's general marketing manager for Ford and Lincoln, said 39% of in-market shoppers consider themselves motorsports fans. "We see 50% higher consideration of Ford products from Ford motorsports fans," he said.

The aforementioned Octane Academy, said Felice, is the first and only dedicated action-sports campaign and marketing platform. Launching with X-Games, the program -- which will be supported by TV ads in which the four racers exhort viewers to participate -- involves consumers creating their own videos on why they have the mettle to participate. The racers also select the winners.

The winners are thrown into one of four four-day training programs that pit the chosen applicants against each other for tenacity, athleticism and general competitiveness, one for each of the racing platforms and its associated vehicle. The participants' experience will be captured in reality-show style. "Followers of action sports will have a chance to experience it," said Felice.

In addition to the TV ads, there will be digital and print ads. "The racers will be looking for personality and character -- not just skill," he said.

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