Q&A: McLaren seeks to reverse perception of 'cold' brand identity

Tooned: McLaren animation starring Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton
Tooned: McLaren animation starring Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton

Sports car company McLaren is aiming to "thaw" perceptions of its "cold and sterile" brand identity, with a new animated comedy TV series starring its Formula One drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.

As part of plans to reach a broader audience, including children, the manufacturer has partnered with visual effects company Framestore to create a new company called McLaren Animation.

The first project is a 12-part animated series called 'Tooned', featuring CGI versions of Hamilton and Button at McLaren's Woking headquarters, as well as a 'Professor M' character voiced by comedian Alexander Armstrong. The three-minute episodes will be screened prior to the start of each F1 Grand Prix on Sky's dedicated F1 channel, beginning this Sunday (7 July) ahead of the British Grand Prix.

McLaren is planning to extend the animated concept beyond the series through merchandise, digital games and potential "feature films" depending on the success of the venture.

Ron Dennis, executive chairman at McLaren Group, said it was important to show the "humour" in F1 to a wider audience: "Motor racing can probably come across as quite cold and scientific, and at McLaren we've probably been accused of lacking humour in the past. But a lot of humour exists in F1, so this is about putting smiles on people's faces."

Marketing spoke exclusively to McLaren Group brand director John Allert about the plans to engage with a new audience.

MKTG: Is this an attempt to treat McLaren more as a consumer brand?

John Allert: It dates back to the original ambitions that Ron and I shared when I first joined from Interbrand [in 2007], to raise the bar in how we manage the brand, which had previously not been managed very intuitively, and to start to put the same rigour and science behind brand management as we do in every other part of the business.

The danger is that you miss the emotional warmth with those buying into what you are all about. This is an opportunity to stretch the demographic aperture of the brand, to bring it younger, and to also bring a self-effacing humour to a brand that hadn't been particularly good at laughing at itself.

In tapping into the rapport between Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, do you risk the McLaren brand being too dependent on those drivers?

It's always a balancing act. We are certainly lucky to have two British world champions in a British team, who happen to get on very well. It would be foolish to try to do anything other than distil the essence of what that's all about and infuse the McLaren brand with as much of that as we can.

How will the 'Tooned' animation be promoted?

We've been very careful with digital distribution, because we believe it is a massive opportunity that we don't want to go into naively. We want the digital partner who shares our vision and knows what we're all about. Not just to post a viral video, but to do something more interesting.

How involved were the F1 team's sponsor brands, such as Vodafone, Mercedes-Benz and Santander?

Obviously, we're in constant dialogue with key partners, and they were without exception very interested onlookers to the process. There is without a doubt value to them in terms of the association. It's not the reason we've done it, and I don't know ultimately where those interest levels might end up going. The worst thing we could possibly do with this, in my view, is to over-commercialise it and burst the bubble of appeal that we've spent a lot of time and money trying to create.

Were there also concerns regarding regulations governing advertising to children?

We've always experienced in F1, the audiences we are serving more than ourselves demand the driver branding or the car branding as evidence that this is a legitimate and real initiative. If we were to use just Lewis and Jenson in civilian clothes, I don't think it would have nearly the same appeal, especially for younger audiences. As soon as they see the race suits and the car, they think F1.

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