The girl-power behind the horse-power of F1

A photograph of Steve’s daughter watching F1 from the sofa of their home.

How Ellie Norman and her team’s strategic thinking gave the green light to Netflix’s ‘Drive to Survive’ series and the resurgence of F1.

Netflix and Vroom

My current favourite Netflix series was recommended by my friend, Dan, who said that I should watch F1’s, Drive to Survive.

I have never understood the appeal of Formula One. Despite living close to many of the race teams’ headquarters and having friends that love the sport, it never pulled me in. Why would you spend over 2 hours on a Sunday watching these cars race around a circuit for what seemed like way too many laps? The only time you saw the drivers were when they were spraying each other with champagne, and even then, it was the same old faces, boring, and a waste of champagne.

But Dan insisted, “you should give it a go, it’s brilliant, you’ll love it!”. So I did give it a go, it was brilliant, and I did love it!

It’s your classic docuseries that goes behind the scenes of what would typically be out of sight and reach for most of us. Introducing you to the drivers, the teams, their managers and owners, and the incredible lifestyles they live.

I was a few episodes into Season 3 when my eldest daughter, Ellie, asked what I was watching, and I said, “Drive to Survive, you should give it a go, it’s brilliant, you’ll love it!”. She did, and she loves it, and more importantly, she now loves F1, especially Lando Norris (McLaren driver).

After binging our way through Season 3, we went back to the start and watched Season 1 and 2. We were hooked and ready for the 2021 F1 season, genuinely excited.

We had totally connected with a new sport, we had a pretty good understanding of how it worked, we knew the drivers, we’d met their families, we saw how incredibly hard the teams work to get their driver to the end of the race, and we wanted to see some live racing.

On a road trip to take Ellie back to university in September, she was eagerly watching Lando lead the Russian Grand Prix on my phone. We finished watching the race sat outside a cafe in Nottingham as Lando tried and failed to outrace the rain only to let Hamilton steal his 100th victory.

At the end of the 2021 season, Ellie sat on our sofa at home dressed in her matching McLaren cap and sweatshirt engrossed in the nail-biting season finale (I won’t get into who should have won that race and the Championship, but it shouldn’t have been Verstappen). This image, pictured above, sums up the effectiveness of Drive to Survive and the addition of two new fans for F1.

Our newfound love of F1 has been a bonding experience. Ellie is all over the social content and keeps me abreast of the latest team updates, qualifying times and pole positions. We are now thinking about how we can get a trip away to watch our first live race – my vote is for Monza.

I love the power of brand and great creative thinking. I love it even more when I see someone has done a number on me, and they have won me over, hook, line and sinker. I don’t often step back and look into how they did it, but with ‘Drive to Survive’, that is exactly what I did. And I was excited by what I found.

A tale of two Ellies

Having done a quick Google search, I came across a talk by Ellie (great name) Norman (Global Director of Marketing & Comms at F1) in the Global Motorsport Series explaining F1’s approach to digital transformation.

Following Liberty Media’s takeover of F1, Ellie and her team’s challenge was to turn around a stagnant and even diminishing fan base within just two years.

Not happy with the incremental change, often seen in larger established brands, Ellie looked to emulate the growth-hacker mentality of a start-up. Historically, F1 had been an old boys club made up of lawyers and accountants – there wasn’t a marketing department and no research or data on where the business was. And definitely no strategy on where it was going.

It’s not about ‘speed’, it’s about ‘racing’

Ellie knew the importance of fully understanding where the business currently was so those objective strategic decisions could be made. What they found was that the sport was running into the ground. Fans didn’t feel loved. They were disengaged and thought it was all about money and politics.

Ellie’s brief was simple, start from scratch, bring in new fans, and do it quick!

Starting from scratch meant diagnosis first, and that’s exactly what she did. In fact, to truly get under the skin of the business, they took the first three months of year 1 to do their research. They were looking for their “North Star”, as Ellie calls it – the who we are, what we stand for, and where are we going.

The big insight that came out of the research was the fact that although fans said F1 was all about the ‘speed’ – and cars were getting faster every year – what they were really talking about was ‘racing’ and that racing is about the “raw energy of competition”, as Ellie describes it. Ellie went on to say, “..when you talk about racing, there’s a grittiness to it. It’s about rivalries. It’s about humans. It’s about the drama. And that’s the story we have to tell within Formula One.”

“..when you talk about racing there’s a grittiness to it. It’s about rivalries. It’s about humans. It’s about the drama. And that’s the story we have to tell within Formula One.”

Ellie Norman, Global Director of Marketing & Comms at F1

Their team went pedal to the metal on bringing ‘racing’ to life by adopting a start-up mentality of trial and error – constant measuring and adapting to achieve their goals. For Ellie and the team, it was about testing fast. Fast enough to keep up with F1 teams! This agile approach saw yearly increases in social media engagement of more than 50%, taking them to over 23 million fans in 2020. Not everything went to plan, but they listened to the fans, adapted and learned from doing, not pre-testing.

Trusting the experts

The early research and subsequent strategy decisions allowed Ellie and her team to recognise when they needed expert help, and Netflix was a prime example (no pun intended).

Their confidence in the strategy gave them the confidence to hand over editorial control to the experts, Netflix. “A pretty scary thing to do”, Ellie argues, “…if you’re going to broadcast a race to 490 million unique TV viewers, doing it in over 200 countries, we’re pretty good at that. But you know what, we don’t know how to tell a story like Netflix does, and they’ve done that incredibly successfully for us.”

Other channels, including fashion, took the same approach of handing the F1 brand over to the experts. The Japanese urban fashion brand, BAPE, was brought in to reach a super-connected youthful audience.

Having a North Star doesn’t mean you will take everyone on the journey

Bringing in new fans meant they had to reinvigorate the sport and “rock the boat”, as Ellie put it. Drive to Survive wouldn’t please everyone. The new brand identity certainly didn’t please everyone. But Ellie and her team had a clear strategy that kept them on course. They knew that not all the core fans would follow, but the team’s new knowledge of their fan base allowed them to create content that targeted the different fan segments.

F1 TV and the F1 App subscription delivered more content for the original core fan base. Behind the scenes, driver and team updates and all things new and exciting were dispersed via its ever-growing new and younger social media hungry fans (including my very own Ellie).

Drive to Thrive

So why do I love, Drive to Survive?

Firstly, the decision to do it was grounded in proper research, ‘choiceful’ strategy, and the confidence to let the experts do their thing. This creative freedom allowed the fans, new and old, to truly connect with the sport.

And secondly, as a dad of two amazing young ladies, it makes me very happy that I can tell my Ellie that it was another Ellie who was behind our new love of Formula One. Ellie Norman has shown true expertise and leadership in two worlds that historically have been male-dominated, Formula One and Marketing.

Suppose Ellie’s and my experience hasn’t convinced you of this strategy’s success for F1. In that case, you should look at this insightful Twitter post by Nathan Baugh (@nathanbaugh27) or Formula One’s official figures for TV, race attendance and digital audience figures for 2021.

Anyway, if you haven’t already watched Drive to Survive, you should give it a go, it’s brilliant, you’ll love it!

About Steve

Founder and Creative Director