Sauber sponsors happy under wraps
LONDON, Feb 14 — The idea of publicity-shy Formula One sponsors may sound about as likely as Michael Schumacher taking up flower arranging or Ferrari painting their cars psychedelic purple.
When the Ferrari-powered Sauber team went looking for sponsors last year, however, that is exactly what they found: companies who wanted to be involved in the glamour sport without the world at large knowing about it.
So the midfield battlers came up with a typically Swiss solution to lure them in: the “Sauber Club One”, effectively a secret society for corporate shrinking violets happy to spend their money while ticking the “no publicity” box.
“As not every corporation seeks, or wants to invest in, both exposure and access, I felt it was time to offer them separately,” said team boss and founder Peter Sauber.
Swiss-based Sauber found that some companies wanted the networking and business-to-business opportunities that a team could offer but were concerned that their image might suffer by public association.
What with Formula One’s recent race-fixing and sado-masochistic sex scandals, and the sport’s credentials being seen as still some way from green, that was not entirely surprising.
The global financial crisis did not help, with some companies wary of being seen to flash the cash in a world of luxury goods and conspicuous consumption while workers were feeling the pinch or being laid off.
Credit Suisse, a leading light in a country famed for banking secrecy, had been Sauber’s long-time backers but they pulled out in January 2009 after being mauled by the global credit crunch.
Teams such as Ferrari and McLaren will always attract high-profile and loyal corporate backers, but further down the grid it is a problem.
“We sensed in a lot of talk that it is an issue these days that not many famous brands maybe want to be associated so openly with Formula One,” Sauber chief executive Monisha Kaltenborn told Reuters.
“They don’t want to see their brand plastered all over the area. Some may have internal issues with it and some feel it’s not environmentally friendly enough and things like that,” added Kaltenborn.
“Two years ago we had a lot of scandals as well so some people didn’t want to get associated with the sport. There was a lot of uncertainty.
“So from that need we just came up with this idea. Basically it offers you the benefits anybody else would have, because everybody still thinks this platform is one of the best you have in the world for exposure, without brand exposure.”
Another plus for the team is that the obvious lack of sponsors on the car can no longer be read as a clear indication that they are struggling for finance and backers.
At the launch of the new Sauber race car in Valencia at the end of January, there was plenty of unbranded space as well as fresh logos for Mexican companies putting their money behind driver and compatriot Sergio Perez.
The sidepods carried the Sauber Club One logo.
Kaltenborn would not say how many companies had signed up — that too is a secret — but said the idea had worked and there was now a “portfolio of strong Swiss brands involved”.
This year the club is going international.
The team also has a Japanese driver in Kamui Kobayashi but Japanese sponsors are now rare in Formula One after car makers such as Honda and Toyota pulled out for economic reasons along with tyre company Bridgestone.
They and others, who want to test the water without full immersion, could be targets.
“The concept I don’t think is a short-term one,” said Kaltenborn, an Indian-born Austrian who is married to a German and lives in Switzerland.
“It is something which is for me absolutely sustainable. There might be companies that might use it to start, to come to know and then go ahead and expose themselves.”
Other teams have taken notice, while unsure if it would work in their circumstances.
Struggling Spanish-owned Hispania, the team with fewest sponsors, presented their new F111 car on their website (www.hispaniaf1team.com) last week with a clear focus on public branding opportunities.
Where sponsors could expect to see their names were stickers declaring “Cool Spot”, “This could be you” and “Your logo here”.
Team Lotus boss Tony Fernandes, who also runs the AirAsia budget airline and is locked in a legal battle with Renault-sponsoring Group Lotus over the use of the marque in Formula One, welcomed the Sauber experiment.
“I applaud all these innovative ideas,” he said. “I don’t look down on anything like that. If people want to put money into the sport, I think that’s great.”
Behind-the-scenes business networking has become core to several teams’ sponsorship offering, notably Williams and Renault, who have just recruited well-connected former champion Jackie Stewart for that purpose.
Graeme Lowdon, president of Russian-backed Virgin Racing, said his outfit were no different.
“I don’t think the whole secrecy thing would go down terribly brilliantly at our team. We are a very open environment,” he told Reuters.
“But we do have sponsors who are not interested in branding on the cars or trucks or any branding at all.” — Reuters