The first race of the F1 season was yesterday in Australia, with Lotus winning the first race of the year. However, the biggest story was Lewis Hamilton’s debut with the Mercedes-Benz team. What’s more interested for us at Sports Business Canada was a new sponsor on his racing suit: BlackBerry. BlackBerry have been everywhere since the launch of the Z10. They were always a big sponsor of Major League Baseball, lots of commercials during other sporting events, and in many other advertising mediums. Nevertheless, being on an F1 car is new for the company and came as somewhat of a surprise.
BlackBerry is a famous Canadian brand. Their handsets were a point of Canadian pride, and now have become something similar to Nortel or Corel. A Canadian tech company that couldn’t keep up with trends in a quickly changing industry. Today, BlackBerry is at a crossroads. Will they get back their market share and become the leading business handset again? Or will they fade into obscurity like we have seen with other handset companies that couldn’t adapt (hello Nokia)?
F1 team sponsorship is normally reserved for oil companies, airlines, and financial institutions. It was somewhat shocking to see BlackBerry as the second biggest sponsor for Mercedes. However, upon taking the time to think about it, for BlackBerry this sponsorship makes a ton of sense.
BlackBerry’s best chance for survival and dominance is now in Asia and emerging markets. North America and Europe have adopted the iPhone and Android devices, leaving BlackBerry as an also ran for most consumers. In emerging markets however, Blackberry is still huge and continues to grow. If you look at the F1 calendar geography, this partnership is everywhere they need to be. With races in Malaysia, China, Bahrain, Brazil, India, and Abu Dhabi. These are all markets that Blackberry has seen success in, or must see success in to survive. Additionally, these are countries were F1 has a strong foothold and aligning with a strong brand like Formula 1 racing makes a lot of sense. If this sponsorship is to go into the future then the rumored races in Russia, Thailand, and Argentina make this sponsorship even more valuable.
Besides the popularity of F1 in these emerging markets for BlackBerry, there is the Lewis Hamilton factor. Lewis Hamilton is arguably the biggest star in motorsport. He is good looking, stylish, well spoken, and most importantly, successful. To have the ability to use him in your campaigns and at events is a huge win for BlackBerry. He is the type of face the company needs across the globe. If Lewis Hamilton is able to win some races, and on Sunday he did show fantastic pace along with teammate Nico Rosberg, potentially the BlackBerry logo might be seen on the podium.
Does the sponsorship come with some risks? Of course. First, like any sports sponsorships, the team may not win a race. Or they may not be in enough race situations to warrant camera time. Lewis Hamilton has shown the ability to always get coverage from the heavily British influenced F1 media. But at times last year, his new team was very much a non-factor. If that happens again, the 12 million dollar deal becomes wasteful. In addition to the risk of the team not performing, there is also the issue of half the F1 calendar being in Europe or North America. These are places where BlackBerry already has brand recognition and face a very uphill battle against iPhone and Android devices. So the value of this becomes much more limited.
Overall, the success of this sponsorship will come back to the activation around F1. This includes F1 getaways, product demos at the track or in the host city, Lewis Hamilton photo opportunities and things like that. If BlackBerry does not use the sponsorship in innovative or unique ways, then the potential to sell phones based on the sponsorship is minimal. There are numerous examples of huge brands sponsoring events but not doing anything with the events to maximize their benefit.
The BlackBerry partnership with Mercedes is part of BlackBerry’s huge brand re-launch. The sponsorship aligns well with what BlackBerry must be now and in the future to survive. They will need some luck for the sponsorship to be a home run. Nevertheless, it is a smart marketing play that should pay dividends to the beleaguered mobile phone company.
Jeffrey Lush is a weekly blog contributor to Sports Business Canada