Many people think I’m a sports expert. Not so much. My expertise is in branding, research, and analytics. It just so happens that a good deal of my experience has been in the sports world. That said, people still expect me to know everything about every sport, which I don’t.
To my dad’s disappointment, I knew virtually nothing about NASCAR yet found myself with a hot pass to the Daytona 500 in 2011. (A hot pass is the king of all VIP passes in the world of racing. If there were backseats in those cars, they’d let you sit there if you had a hot pass.) My avid NASCAR fan of a father was slightly jealous of the laminated magic I wore around my neck.
I was one of those people who didn’t understand, or better yet "get," NASCAR. Whether it was the complicated old points system (which recently changed. Who knew?) or just my lack of exposure, I was in the camp of those who secretly, okay shamefully, made fun of the so-called "monotonous day of left turns and mullets." But I eventually discovered how misled I was.
Due to a personal endorsement deal with GM and Chevy, I attended the 2011 Daytona 500 as a complete NASCAR rookie—so much of a rookie that I wore black high heel boots to this gig. It was my first-ever experience at a live NASCAR race, and I can’t ever remember watching one on TV either. I knew nothing about the sport other than the fact that NASCAR had a very loyal fan base and its success revolved around the teams’ marketing sponsors.
The Daytona was a great learning experience on many levels. I obviously got to know what makes NASCAR so exciting. I also learned why fans are so loyal. And I swear on my iPhone, I didn’t see one mullet.
There I stood, a former NASCAR phobic by all accounts, suddenly filled with excitement, adrenaline, and loud engines—all the stuff that makes life fun. Was I actually liking NASCAR? Yes. What could bring on such a quick change?
I was given a more intimate experience with the brand by way of its primary consensus. I mingled with the loyalists, in other words. And when you meet passion face-to-face, it’s impossible to ignore. There were several reasons I couldn’t ignore people’s passion for NASCAR.
For starters, drivers are unusually accessible. They do fan Q&As and autograph sessions the day of the race. The Daytona 500 happens to be the biggest day of the year for NASCAR. I didn’t see quarterback Tom Brady (New England Patriots) or Eli Manning (New York Giants) chatting with fans on game day. In addition to the unscripted access to the sports stars, my hot pass allowed me to literally go anywhere—even the racetrack itself.
It was uncomfortably exciting having unlimited access, and at times I worried about getting in the crew’s way. Needless to say, I was in the middle of the action and got to experience firsthand what makes NASCAR such a fascinating sport.
Are you seeing a familiar thread here? Personal access is the entry point for growing any brand. Here’s why.
Access Leads to Connection
Daytona fans were welcome to take part in defining the brand’s signature event, and they did. For example, they were encouraged to sign the actual racetrack. They also mingled with the drivers and took pictures with them, had them sign something, or simply give them a jump high five.
You think a young fan who signed his name on the famous racetrack or had his picture taken with his favorite driver is ever going to forget the experience? He’s a NASCAR lifer, just like your friend who met a Major Leaguer as a kid and still follows his team today even though he now lives in another city. Or just like that customer who received a personal message from the business owner and now won’t spend her money elsewhere. Authentic access builds authentic connections between brands and fans. Loyalty comes along that path.
Connection Leads to Relationship
The incredible thing about NASCAR is that these brand-fan connection points create relationships with people of all ages. That’s a nice-sized target. The key is to continue the conversation and deepen the relationship after the initial access was granted. This is something NASCAR wasn’t doing much of when I attended the Daytona 500. My social media play-by-play updates to my own audience of 1.2 million served as a demonstration of what can happen on a much larger scale when an outsider like me or a loyal fan perpetuates the conversation about NASCAR over social media.
I didn’t pull punches when it came to reporting about the experience. I went into it honestly. I told my audience I had no plans pretending to know the sport so I could come across as an expert. I simply promised they would experience the Daytona 500 through my rookie eyes, which might prove to be comical but nonetheless authentic. I used the #GiveNASCARaChance hashtag as a sort of motto for those in my audience who, like me, hadn’t give the sport much thought before that day.
The hashtag alone ensured that my virtual play-by-play reached a much larger audience of true race fans who gladly joined in my education. As it turned out, I wasn’t alone in my NASCAR phobia. The response I received from non-NASCAR fans who followed my Daytona 500 adventure was overwhelming. Many who thought they disliked NASCAR had, like me, just never given it a chance. After seeing behind-the-scenes photos, video, and other content from my time in Daytona, many decided to tune into the race for the first time.
Fans who had more than ten thousand followers at the time were common. If even one of your followers had a Daytona experience with your brand and then did what I did, you’d be making good headway. But what if multiple people on a regular basis had a personal experience with your brand and then furthered the conversation over social media? What would that do for your brand?
Relationships Lead to Affinity
When like-minded people gather to enjoy a common experience, they tighten their bond for both one another and the experience itself. If you’ve ever been to any major sporting event like the Super Bowl or the World Series or the Daytona 500, you know that the experience bonded you to those around you. Even years later, if you met someone on a plane who attended the same event, the bond is there. There’s something special about sharing an experience of that magnitude together, whether it’s a sporting event or something else.
It’s a good thing to win affinity from one individual, but it’s a great thing when that individual has many others with whom to share the experience afterward. Social media makes this possible—incentivized follow-up surveys, not so much.
Affinity Leads to Influence
There’s a reason so many sponsors are attracted to NASCAR: it has that rare but lucrative combination of a tightly knit but incredibly large community. That gives rise to the question: Who truly owns the NASCAR brand? Technically speaking, it’s NASCAR. But practically speaking, both NASCAR and its loyal fans do. If NASCAR spends 364 days ignoring racing fans, how’s the next year’s Daytona 500 going to turn out?
Of course, the NASCAR brand wouldn’t exist without the executives, teams, and drivers who make up the sport. In truth, what affinity creates is mutual influence. This is more obvious the larger the audience grows. The brand influences its audience to consider new products and embrace new paradigms. And the audience majority—the consensus—tells the brand what it values and what it does not. It reminds me of something else: a healthy relationship based on a foundation of trust.
Influence Leads to Conversion
The brand converts the fans to buyers with an increasing degree of loyalty. The more the brand continues to deliver the value the fans want, the more loyal (and lucrative) to the brand the audience becomes. This is why perpetuating the initial access you offer is so important.
Simultaneously, the fans use their influence to convert new followers to join the conversation and, eventually, the community. A case in point is that the NASCAR fans made a believer of me, a woman without a NASCAR bone in her body. NASCAR was a brand for which I had zero affinity. And then I met the fans of NASCAR, mingled with them, and experienced the sport—the brand—firsthand through their eyes. I had a blast, and I came to see what a loyal fan sees in the sport: not the full spectrum but certainly enough of it to move me from an ignorant outsider to an appreciative fan in a matter of one day. Am I crushing beer cans on my head or rocking a bikini top in the company of 150,000 of my closest friends? Not yet at least.But I now have affinity for a sport I couldn’t have cared less about before the experience. In the end, I was wrong about the NASCAR brand. And hundreds of others made the same admission. After having my mullet-laden misconceptions removed through access to the human side of NASCAR, I was left with a new understanding of the sport.
What if this sort of clarity and influence was available to your brand at any time simply because you provided access?
It is. You just need to be willing to accept the truth that you are not the only authority on your brand. The consensus is the authority on your brand too. Control freaks, this is where you dig deep.
Reprinted by permission the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Renegades Write the Rules, by Amy Jo Martin Copyright (c) 2012 by Amy Jo Martin.
Amy Jo Martin is the founder & CEO of Digital Royalty, which opened in 2009 to help companies, celebrities, professional sports leagues, teams, and athletes build, measure, and monetize their digital universe. She tweets at @AmyJoMartin.
[Image: Flickr user Roger Smith]