NASCAR’s Race Towards Hollywood

NASCAR Digital Entertainment

As director of film, television and music entertainment for NASCAR Digital Entertainment, Sarah Nettinga develops and oversees original film and television concepts and music tie-ins for the brand. Integrations with Walt Disney Pictures “Herbie: Fully Loaded”, Sony Pictures’ soon-to-be-released film “Talladega Nights” with Will Ferrell, and countless TV network appearances have given NASCAR star status among sports brands. In this interview, Nettinga gives us the full picture of NASCAR’s involvement with Tinseltown.

Listen to AUDIO of the Interview >>

Start out by giving us an overview of the NASCAR brand.
The NASCAR brand is about the strong bond that exists between the NASCAR fans and their sport. The brand represents sterling and exciting entertainment with the sense of belonging to a club. As a fan, you feel that NASCAR represents people like you. Regular people. Honorable people. Down-to-earth people. You feel like you belong to a family when you invest in being a NASCAR fan. And that’s how you see the brand as well.

NASCAR has been a leader in the entertainment space from early on, aligning itself with Hollywood. What made you catch on to this form of advertising so well and so early?

The L.A. office was opened in 2001 in response to the broadcast agreements with FOX, FX, NBC, TNT and Speed Channel. The intention of the office was really to support those deals and integrate into the businesses of those studios that those networks represented.

My position was created with the intent of pushing NASCAR forward into the mainstream, entertainment pop culture using those assets and expanding the NASCAR fan base as a whole. And you do that in many ways: You develop original films and TV shows. You look towards traditional product placement in existing television and films. You get yourself involved with celebrities that have done cross promotions with film, TV and the music industry. So, there’s no one approach that you take. You really look at it from a very strategic, five or six prong approach.

How has branded entertainment helped grow your fan base?

We’re looking to grow the sport in urban areas, because the sport has been more rural in its approach. By focusing on mainstream, entertainment pop culture, we’re zeroing in on the big cities, where [people] focus most of their time around the entertainment arenas.

Has your partnership with Madison Road helped you penetrate the Hollywood community?

Actually, the relationship with Madison Road Entertainment is very new. We have a lot to navigate and they have a lot to navigate and learn about the NASCAR industry first. That’s what we’ve been focusing with them. We’re expecting to have many successful opportunities come from the relationship in the future, but to date we haven�t announced our first big initiative with them.

Why do you think NASCAR fans are more open to sponsorships as opposed to NFL or NBA fans?

NASCAR fans are unique in that they understand the need for sponsorships in sports. Ninety-three percent of fans actually say corporate sponsors are very important to NASCAR, and eighty-three percent of the fans saying that they actually like having corporate sponsorships in NASCAR.

Can you give us some examples of your best integrations?

[the film] “Herbie: Fully Loaded” was a great example because it allowed us to work with two other iconic brands: “Herbie” and Disney. From a film perspective, we were very happy in that relationship.

We’re very proud of our overall approach to television and strategic placement of the sport on the networks. We’ve looked at everything from Animal Planet, Travel Channel, Biography Channel, Outback, Sim-TV, VH1, Disney Channel and Discovery Kids shows to really integrate this sport. I think our better integrations are how we’ve found ourselves on multiple networks with a variety of messages.

Who are some of the celebrities that you are aligning with and how do you choose the right celebrities for the NASCAR brand?

We�re really running the gamut of different types of celebrities that have been at races. Some of the celebrities that have appeared at races are Arnold Schwarzenegger, Adam Sandler, Mathew McConaughy, Ashton Cutcher, Pamela Anderson, Ben Affleck and Whoopi Goldberg. A lot of musicians [go to races] as well from Brittany Spears to Jessica Simpson and Sarah Evans.

Our method for working with celebrities is really two fold: We look at current releases and trends in mainstream culture and who’s popular at that moment, and we investigate which of those individuals has a passion or interest in NASCAR. We’re only interested in authentic relationships. We’re not interested in just marketing for the sake of marketing.

What is your method for picking the right brands to associate with?

It goes back to the same criteria. It has to feel like an authentic integration into the product. If the story line doesn’t fit NASCAR and we’re trying to force NASCAR into a box that doesn’t fit the sport, then it’s not a good integration. But if it’s authentic to the sport and feels like it represents the sport in the way that our fans see the sport, then we’re interested in being involved.

How are you measuring the success of these deals?

Our mandate in this office is really to place NASCAR in the mainstream, entertainment pop culture and grow the fan base. That measurement cannot necessarily be quantitative; although some say that we help in the overall growth and maintenance of the sports ratings on television. But there’s really no one measurement you can point to that says something is successful. So for us success is measured in perception. It changes an attitude towards the sport from the fans, for the non-fans, the media, the press, the ratings and a number of people that actually attend the event.

What’s ahead for NASCAR and its integrations with entertainment?

We’re going to be spending a great deal of time on Will Ferrell’s movie “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” in August of 2006’s promotional, marketing off-shoots. We will be contributing a NASCAR marketing plan per say. So that’ll be a big focus for us. Also, we’re releasing a new series on the Biography Channel called, “NASCAR Driven To Win” in March 2006, that has us busy form all sides of the production, promotion and marketing. And we have a couple of specials lined up for A&E; and TNT. We’re developing a movie of the week with them.

Do you have any predictions for the branded entertainment space?

I think the trend will be that producers in Hollywood will become more comfortable with brands and brand savvy overall in order to benefit from the relationships that they’re trying to build. The brands aren’t necessarily going to have to become Hollywood friendly. I think it’s going to be the other way around. Producers will have to change the way they work.