Already by the end of February, the buzz in Hanoi was palpable around the completion of the country’s first-ever Formula 1 circuit, with the April race weekend just over a month away.
Celebrating a “major milestone,” Lê Ngọc Chi, CEO of the Vietnam Grand Prix Corporation beamed, telling reporters he was “beyond excited” for this “moment of great of pride.”
The Vietnamese Grand Prix was important for Formula 1 as the first event secured under Liberty Media’s ownership and a boost for the sport in Southeast Asia following the demise of the Malaysian F1 event in 2016.
Moreover, a rapidly growing market with leisure travel and entertainment appeal made a race in Vietnam very important to international brands like Heineken and Red Bull, which were already involved in F1, notes Matthew Marsh, founder and director of motorsport consultancy Ecurie Drapeau Jaune (EDJ).
Local brands: the X-factor
With local broadcaster VTV set to cover all races live to a mass audience in their local language, the event had immediate appeal for local brands as well.
“[There] came this exciting global event where, for the first time ever, an F1 race was taking place in Vietnam and as marketers, we never want to miss such a unique opportunity to ride on the hype,” notes Tam Truong, media head at Marico Southeast Asia.
In Vietnam, Marico owns a local male grooming brand of shampoos, soaps and deodorants called X-men. The brand fits F1 like a glove. Adrenalin-driven motorsports, along with gaming and cutting-edge technology had high affinity with X-men’s cultivated brand image of being “young, dynamic, modern and progressive” with little fear of taking risks, Truong says.
X-Men’s spirit of "real men making bold moves” even manifested itself in a previous TV commercial back in 2018, depicting a young male professional resigning his corporate job to pursue his dream of becoming a successful auto racer (see video below).
Given the brand's prior involvement in motorsport, "F1 is considered a major upgrade, which is intentional to bring our brand image to the next level,” Truong says.
“The multinational brands that compete with X-Men in Vietnam have the kind of marketing assets that their global budgets can provide, such as endorsements by international football stars,” says Marsh. So in part to ‘Keep up with Joneses’, Marico worked through EDJ to secure a partnership with the Racing Point F1 team. This, Marsh explains, gave the brand “a high profile and international association, but also with local relevance because of the Grand Prix in Hanoi.”
The Point of partnership
Along with placing X-Men in the league of global brand sports partnerships, Marico now had new marketing assets to work with, including exposure with F1 Racing Point’s car and driver, Sergio Perez.
The deal allowed not only logo placement on the car and driving gloves for the big race, but also made Perez and the car available to X-Men and its agency teams, led by The Purpose Group for creative and Havas Media and Wavemaker for media planning and buying. The immediate result was a 15-second TVC featuring Perez and the Racing Point car. The video (see below) has garnered more than 47 million views on YouTube in a matter of weeks.
Adding the Racing Point car to X-Men product packs was a key benefit, but Marico wanted its F1 partnership even more closely tied to its products. So X-Men created a new F1-inspired special edition range of products with a special fragrance, developed overseas by leading perfumers that was endorsed by the Racing Point team.
Beyond that came other benefits, like opportunities to create branded bespoke F1 racing experiences, new consumer touchpoints from eSports games, point-of-sale promotions, outdoor marketing, branded events and activations along with what Truong calls “money-can’t-buy” meet-and-greet opportunities and paddock access at the official racing event itself.
X-Men was all-in.
Then COVID-19 became a global pandemic.
Swerving with COVID-19
On March 13, three weeks before the event, the Vietnamese Grand Prix was postponed indefinitely, in hopes of bringing it back once the pandemic subsided. In a true sign of the times, the first F1 racers to take to the streets of Hanoi were virtual racers. Not only was a virtual Vietnam Grand Prix held in place of the real event in April, but the circuit has already been added to F1 2020, Formula 1's official video game, slated for release in July.
But for a local brand like X-Men that made a big bet on F1, the postponement of the big event meant shifting gears. X-Men had to reinvent its media and communication approach to focus less on racing and more on the new product offerings in the short term, Truong says.
But more importantly, it meant “walking extra miles” to shift toward new contextual content angles that were suddenly top-of-mind for customers, Truong adds. These included reinforcing safety guidelines, COVID-19 news updates, work-from-home tips and lockdown entertainment.
Longer term, Truong is looking forward to re-activating F1 when the Vietnam debut gets re-scheduled, with an October or November restart still under consideration. This scenario may work out beneficially for X-Men, Marsh notes, since it will have had use of the Racing Point marketing assets for a significantly longer time ahead of the Grand Prix.
As for 2021, Marsh remains optimistic, noting how Vietnamese organisers want to match the standard set by the Singapore Grand Prix in raising the city-state’s profile as an entertainment destination with a global TV audience.
“[The Vietnam Grand Prix has] the advantage of a large local population and a fast-growing economy with aggressive local brands,” Marsh says. "Assuming we can get past the disruption of COVID-19, I remain excited about the marketing potential. And the track layout should also provide good racing!”