Sarah Fisher’s professional life turned around the day she cried on national TV.
It was the Indy 500 on May 25, 2008, just shortly after Sarah was collected by a crash involving Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti. In an instant, Sarah saw her largely self- and fan-funded race car turned into a carbon-fiber mess.
Tony Kanaan, who got booted up into Fisher by teammate Marco Andretti, said Fisher was inconsolable in the ride from the crash site to the infield. “Sarah Fisher, I feel so bad for her,” Kanaan told ABC’s Jamie Little. “She tries so hard. She just put a team together. She was crying so hard in the car. I hugged her and she apologized to me. I apologized to her. I said cry here, but then come out with a smile on your face or I'm going to feel bad.”
Fisher couldn’t hold it together, however, and only managed to get out a few words to Jamie before she had to walk away in tears. Common perception — there’s no crying in racing. Would AJ Foyt ever weep uncontrollably? Rick Mears? Johnny Rutherford?
But in hindsight, Fisher’s tears were a lucky break, because they showed what’s increasingly described as “The Brand.” And Fisher's “brand” resonated with the new CEO of Dollar General Stores, Rick Dreiling.
"I have to say if hadn't been for Memorial Day last year it wouldn't have been Dollar General (sponsoring the car), so it worked out pretty good," Dreiling at a news conference at Kansas Speedway last April.
“Quite frankly, Sarah's story is very inspiring to Dollar General. When we watched her last year (May 2008) go through what she did at Indianapolis we knew she was the perfect fit for all 72,500 employees at Dollar General. She's incredibly hard working and incredibly dedicated to her sport and the way she approaches the sport and the way she approaches her team is the way Dollar General approaches its business. We're Incredibly proud and incredibly excited that Sarah will be wearing the Dollar General yellow and black this year."
Incredibly hard working. Dedicated to her sport. Inspiring. Perfect fit for Dollar General Store employees and customers. If Sarah Fisher were a dishwasher or any other consumer good, those would be known as “brand attributes.”
In today's world dishwashers and microwaves aren't the only thing with brand attributes. People, especially those who get paid to perform in some fashion for others, are finding strong personal brands are key to success. Today's drivers increasingly acting as CEOs of a company (Driver Name, Inc.) that offers a product for sale (themselves) to an audience (companies who may want to reach race fans).
But Just What the Heck is a “Brand?”
Marketers can quickly get lost in babble when trying to define "brand." One nitty-gritty definition goes:
“A brand is a mixture of attributes, tangible and intangible, symbolized in a trademark (or name), which, if managed properly, creates value and influence.”
Another way to put it is “a brand is the image of a product or service in the marketplace.”
While some scoff at using “brand” with race car drivers, if you think of brand as "image," it's as old as racing. Proof: Super Tex.
Those two words conjure up one of the most powerful brands in racing history, AJ Foyt. Foyt’s brand — complete with wins, Texas drawl, thrown laptop computers, beating on cars with hammers, driving with all sorts of injuries, taking on hundreds of hornets, cheating death in a skid loader accident — remains quite strong even decades after his last race. The late Dale Earnhardt's powerful brand can be communicated in two words: "the Intimidator."
Today the most powerful brand in all of racing is probably Danica Patrick. Even though she has but one win on the track, Patrick earns millions for herself and generates millions more for others largely due to the power of her brand, which attributes include ..
Racing hotty. Fierce competitor. Unapologetic about who she is. GoDaddy girl. Tough on the track, sensual and feminine off.
While Patrick is certainly a talented river, her brand attributes are what attract sponsors far more than her on-track performance.
Defining The Brand
Here’s where personal brands get a little trickier than product brands. Products can start with essentially a blank sheet, and makers of products can define the brand however they want. By altering the design, features and benefits of the product, or the way it is marketed, companies can find the brand “sweet spot” that helps differentiate it in a crowded marketplace and increase profit.
To define personal brand, you start with your real personality and go from there.
Klint Briney, who helped Sarah Fisher define and market her strong brand for nearly a decade before starting BRANDed, his own celebrity brand management company, said it’s a question of self examination, understanding your own personal brand, being yourself and then capitalizing on that.
Patrick seems to have uncommon clarity when it comes to defining and reinforcing her brand.
"I have been lucky enough to be myself and be just really true to my character and personality the whole time," Patrick said in May 2009. "But I'd say in the decision-making process, when it comes to doing articles or interviews or photo shoots or anything, I do think about what's good and what's bad and what's right and what's wrong, kind of just where I want to take my brand and what direction I want to go with it."
Fisher also has identified brand attributes — girl next door, small business owner, budget conscious, humble, blue-collar everywoman — and works on where she wants to go with it. In her case, that's a partnership with with Dollar General, whose employees and customers identify strongly with Fisher's brand and story.
Fisher talks about the notion of “branding” in her upcoming book, 99 Things Women Wish They Knew Before You Got Behind The Wheel Of Your Dream Job co-authored with Briney and Lindsey Gobel.
“Once you know your brand, you’re equipped with the tools to properly promote and grow it by building on the opportunities that may exist and that you are able to create,” Fisher said. “If you don’t know what your brand is, you may align or be associated with something that is negative or far from helpful to your growing your brand. But, by getting yourself out there and aligned with the right groups, you may find yourself being recognized for your efforts.”
Drivers Have a Brand Even if They Don’t Acknowledge it
All drivers have some kind of personal brand, although some brands are far stronger and more defined than others. Whether you call it “brand” or “just being me,” the result is the same.
Leilani Münter, self-described “tree-hugging, vegetarian, hippy chick” has one of the most defined and unique brands in racing, even though she doesn't use the b-word.
“I don't really think of myself as a ‘brand,’” Münter said “I am just being me. In fact, when I first started being vocal publicly about environmental issues back in 2006 a lot of marketing people told me I was making a big mistake. They said that I would alienate myself from sponsors that might want to be on my car but don't like my ‘green’ image. I did it anyway because it was important to me, and it's who I am; it's honest. I am sure I have lost some sponsors because of it and I know I have chosen to walk away from some sponsors because of it, which was scary.”
Briney says part of defining the brand is defining what you are NOT, and being willing to walk away if it doesn’t fit. Brands that are all things to all people aren’t brands at all.
As green awareness has risen in the US, more companies are interested in using racing (an inherently non-green activity) to reach a wider audience. And Münter's "carbon free girl" image has her in pole position to represent those companies. Her extensive travels to give eco-friendly speeches and attend green group conferences help strengthen Münter's earth-friendly brand.
Thomas H. Rawls, Vice President, Sales and Marketing for NativeEnergy, a company that promotes renewable energy and global warming awareness, is one of Münter's supporters. He recently defended his company sponsoring a driver in such a high CO2 producing sport with this blog post:
If we only address those who already agree with us, nothing changes. And if we work only with people who already believe in what we do, who is going to change the minds of those who don’t?
Leilani Münter is a proven and committed environmental advocate. That has been demonstrated beyond a doubt. Here’s a link to her site so you can learn more.
Leilani is also a race car driver, and racing leaves an oversized carbon footprint.
So there’s a contradiction. And in that contradiction lies the opportunity: To reach some 75 million individuals who are avid racing fans. My guess is that a fair share of them are not troubling themselves about global warming. That is why we decided that it makes perfect sense to support Leilani and her mission.
Is car racing “bad?” Are 75 million fans damnable? Surely not. Rather, those 75 million fellow inhabitants of our planet present a rich vein of possibility that we want to explore. And explore we will, following the guidance of Leilani, the carbon free girl.
Rawls' comments put him close to being the holy grail of banding, a "brand advocate." Those are people who recommend or strongly endorse a brand to others. Brand advocates can set off the most powerful form of advertising known to man: word-of-mouth.
All this does not mean that a strong brand conquers all, however. Being a woman in a man's sport almost automatically creates some brand definition,which USAC veteran Alison Macleod said can be both good and bad. A chainsaw maker, for example, who's customer audience is 95% male probably won't be too interested in a female driver as a spokesperson, even if she stops traffic in a bikini. A woman simply has the wrong brand attributes for the sponsor. Again, the challenge becomes finding a sponsor whose target customers resonate with the driver's brand.
"Motorsports are selling products to racing's core audience -- men," Macleod told the Toronto Sun. "We have to convince those companies targeting women that there is interest from women in racing."
Tapping into the Power of the Brand
All the brand babble isn’t lost on young racers, who often go through the process — either formal or informal — to define who they are (brand), where they want to go (vision) and how to use the former to achieve the latter (strategy).
“I really see myself as the brand who can relate to every demographic,” said Shannon McIntosh, a 20-year-old USAC driver who is using Twitter (@MissFast1), blogging (www.missfast1.com) and Facebook to build her brand.
“I'm the ‘hometown girl next door’ who can connect to young kids, teens, men and women young and old. I am very deliberate about being involved with my fans and will always be true to myself and to who I am. I look forward to being a role model and spokesperson as well as a philanthropist because giving back and making a difference are huge for me. Making it to the top through hard work and perseverance are number to me.”
Briney said drivers who have attitudes like McIntosh’s give themselves a leg up in the scramble to find money and land rides.
"Young drivers are the future of our sport,” Briney said. “Putting yourself out there and being willing to exposure your brand to as many people as possible is very important. Young racers have always had agents and managers at their side, it's just the matter of finding the right one. Shannon (McIntosh) and Zach (Veach) are prime examples of (young) drivers who are putting themselves out there. Shannon does all of her own marketing and Zach just spoke in front of the Ohio House of Representatives yesterday on distracted driving. They're picking up the phone and the earlier a driver learns how to do that, the more successful they open themselves up to achieve."Click here to read about Young Drivers’ Reality — You Need Dough to Go