Marketing the F1 Singapore Grand Prix: How do you keep 260,000 fans coming back for more?

Crafting and delivering messages to hundreds of thousands of people in multiple markets across a range of mediums is not for the faint-hearted, but Singapore GP marketing director Sasha Rafi is a woman with a plan – she tells Mumbrella’s Dean Carroll about her forward-looking approach

To kick us off, let’s talk about the developments over the last 10 years since Singapore first hosted the GP and you came onboard in 2007 to market the event. How does where you are now compare to the launch all those years ago and how has the marketing strategy evolved over the last decade?

“In the first year of the race – which was 2008 – a lot of our efforts were centred around building awareness of what Formula One is, especially in the local community. At the same time, the work was about informing the global F1 fraternity that the event would be happening in Singapore.

“In 2009 and 2010, there was the global economic crisis and so on the corporate side everybody was more aware of their spending and therefore it became about educating firms on the benefits of hosting clients in F1 hospitality. The general public were still engaged so we focused on the corporate side.

“After that, in year four onwards we spent a good deal of our time driving conversion as opposed to just brand awareness. You could group countries together and use a similar strategy for Thailand and Indonesia, for example. The same for Germany and Sweden, to use another example.

“But then as we moved on from there we had to drill down and focus a lot more on localisation. So we had to retain and retarget while also expanding to new audiences. In the first year tickets really did sell quickly whereas now a more strategic approach is needed.

“For example, a certain period of the year might be spent towards marketing to the short-haul flights market. In recent years, we have been spending a lot more time ensuring that the mix of markets and mediums really work.”

How closely do you work with the other 24 Formula One marketing directors around the world – and do you work with complete autonomy or are there certain guidelines you must adhere to in order to create global brand continuity?

“We each work individually and the consultation is really with the F1 management for approvals and so on. However, over the last six years or so the management has encouraged us promoters – as we are known because we have a local licence to sell tickets for the individual races – to gather together to discuss the issues we face. Things like broadcast rights and sponsorship activations.

“We have always worked very closely with the Australia GP promoter in particular. But we work to share knowledge across borders, whether it be with the Shanghai GP or Abu Dhabi. We might not always be cross-marketers, but there is certainly a lot of knowledge-sharing that goes on.

The F1 Singapore GP attracted a record 260,000 fans in 2017

“For us in Singapore, we do have a big overseas turnout at the race – especially from Australia and the United Kingdom – so we share the attendee profiles we get with Australia and vice versa. At the Australian GP, you will actually see banners for the Singapore GP encouraging people to come and we have gone into cross-promoting via databases there. In previous years, we have even tried twinning packages because Australia is at the start of the season and Singapore is three quarters of the way through.

“Sometimes, we even work with the individual race teams in markets that are important to them and their sponsors – where us promoters will also come together too. We are all part of the same family and we share some of the same challenges so you pass it on without sharing each and every secret that you have in your own market.”

For a moment there last year, it looked like the GP might not be coming back to Singapore but then a deal to keep it here until 2021 was struck at the eleventh hour before the deadline and just before the race. How concerned were you about the impasse?

“It was perhaps not as last minute as it seemed to the public, but it was close enough. It took a while to come to an agreement, but the new management of F1 was a blessing in disguise as it gave us time to really take a step back and look at the deal in full as opposed to just a renewal of the previous agreement.

“It had to work for the promoters but also for F1 as a sport and for Singapore as a destination. I think all of us walked away being quite happy in the end. The moment we knew we were extending we communicated it to the team and then a few hours later to the general public.”

Indeed, in fact the night-time street race saw a record 260,000 attendees in 2017 across the three days. But, as a marketer, how do you keep people coming back year after year as well as converting the next generation into fans willing to spend thousands on flights, hotels and race tickets?

“We really do have a healthy retention rate. There are even people who call us year-on-year wanting exactly the same seat at the race. There are actually over 20 different product types ranging from grandstand tickets to hospitality or general admissions, the single-day and three day ticket options and alike.

“One of the biggest things we do is we engage with people who come along both at the event and afterwards with an incentivised survey to get their feedback. We ask them about everything from the food to the racing experience and the transportation to the content we put together for the evening concerts, ticket pricing, the merchandising and even the accommodation in Singapore.

“We take all of that onboard to improve the products every year. We listen to what people tell us they want. You are talking about thousands of people feeding back every year so it’s quite a lot of useful data to help us better our products and our marketing strategy.”

As the only F1 night race, Singapore is unique on the motorsport calendar

How many of those 260,000 attendees were tourists from outside of Singapore and how many were locals, and do you use different marketing for each audience segment?

“The general rule of thumb is that 60 per cent are local and 40 per cent are from overseas. And the key messages for each group are different.

“For the marketing to the local population, the messaging is around this being at the event of the year in your country and playing up the Singapore spirit so that people feel part of it and feel pride around the race. And we talk about it being an event to take the whole family along to. It’s not just about the man in his forties sitting in the grandstand with a beer anymore.

“For the overseas market, we will also talk about a family holiday but also the opportunity for a romantic getaway or the most exciting honeymoon you could ever imagine – for instance. And for internationals, we also use messaging like: ‘If there’s one trip you should make this year, F1 in Singapore should be it.’

“In press releases and advertorials where you can communicate a bit more than with display, we even market Singapore as a destination with a focus on the safety and the cleanliness plus the proximity to other countries in Asia. For those coming in on long-haul, we tell them how Singapore is a great place to stopover for the race and then leave on Monday to go elsewhere – Bali, for example.

“But even within a single country, we will still have lots of different campaigns. So in the UK for example, we would have one message for the sports enthusiast, another for a couple that has just retired and is looking for an Asian holiday and another message entirely for a group of young lads who are out for a jolly.

“On top of that, we would communicate to people in the UK that they could leave work on a Friday, fly to Singapore, watch the race and then fly back home in time to go to work on Monday. Plus in the current economic climate, we must always talk about value for money and exactly what people are getting for every dollar they spend.”

Attendance did slump in 2016 though didn’t it – what was your marketing response to that decline?

“In 2016, all the races suffered from a drop in attendances. There were so many world events happening like Brexit and Donald Trump that affected the amount of money people were spending. Tourism generally was down globally and people were only really spending on necessities.

“We got the rise in attendance in 2017 because the world was a bit more stable and we shifted our marketing strategy to really emphasize, bold font size 52, the value for money in coming to the race.

“With the management change, the sport itself had also changed from the rules and regulations to how the brand was perceived. And that encouraged people to come along to the races once again.”

Any thoughts around the decision to drop the F1 grid girls and why it took so long for that to happen – they weren’t exactly the most modern marketing technique fit for the 21st century?

“Well, that was a global F1 decision so the promoters had no role in it. For me personally, I am quite neutral about it. You could perceive grid girls as sexist. However it was not just about what they were wearing but also what they stood for – ambassadors to showcase the brand of the title partner.

“The Singapore Airlines grid girls for the last few years have been the icons for Singapore and the ROI for sponsors is about airtime and brand awareness, it was a channel to allow that to happen. I don’t think that is exploitation. It does work as a brand activation for the sponsor. Singapore was different to any other circuit where you might see grid girls wearing short skirts and leather boots. It differed from market to market.”

Singapore Airlines took a very different approach with its ‘grid girls’

And Singapore Airlines was obviously the main sponsor for F1 here of late. How do you measure ROI on behalf of a sponsor to ensure they come back for more every year?

“In the initial years, the title partner here in Singapore was Singtel. And thereafter, it was Singapore Airlines. We have not yet confirmed the sponsor for this year, but it will be a similar-type brand if not the same. We will have to see how it pans out over the next few months.

“The biggest ROI measurement for sponsors is global broadcast exposure in terms of the amount of airtime they get. It can be anything from a flypass to the grid girls we mentioned previously or signage and so on. As the sponsor was an airline, another KPI was how many people came in to watch the race using Singapore Airlines to get here.

“We do marketing directly through print, TV, radio, digital and the rest of it but we also work with the sponsor to do in-market activations. When we partner with Singapore Airlines, we look at key markets of theirs and ours that we can come together on. That could be anything from the launch of a new route to packages that have flight, race tickets and hotels included.”

It’s no secret that many businesses do very well out of F1 here in Singapore while others complain about the disruption caused both during the race week and in the months that lead up to it where preparations can cause problems as roads are closed or congested. Again, how do you overcome such negativity when marketing the event?

“We’ve always had a high level of stakeholder engagement here including the different business and the government bodies. We have to work with them all on access control. With the Singapore Flyer, for instance, we work to give staff passes and to ensure racegoers go along to use the facility.

“If they are within the circuit, they have the benefit of the 80,000 plus people that come in every day. There are initiatives coordinated by the Singapore Tourism Board that include things like shopping discounts, privilege programmes and so on. So you are driving benefits from retailers who might otherwise be affected by the race.

“To be honest, there will still be business that are negatively affected that weekend. Say you are Mothercare in Suntec City, you are not going to sell as many diapers. But we work with those business to do promos prior to the race to drive up sales during the period in advance of the race so that there is not such a big loss during the race.

“Over the years, local businesses have learned what works for them. Some may use it as a time to renovate or close for a few days. For others, they will have Grand Prix promotions on. They are not always official or endorsed as Grand Prix is a generic term, but if you think you can sell plasters on the back of it I’m not going to try and stop it.”

Depending on your point of view and level of tech nerdery, F1 is either the most exciting or the most boring sport – in terms of the spectacle of a race where there is indeed little in the way of overtaking. What are the selling points you focus your marketing efforts on? Is it the drivers? Is it the scale and sizzle of the event in the round, the legacy of classic teams like Ferrari or something else entirely?

“It’s a mix depending upon the audience and the country. Before I started this job i actually had to go and buy F1 for Dummies. I don’t even drive a car so I’m not exactly technical, although I’ve always been interested in the business side of it. But that’s a great challenge to be able to market to someone like myself who you have to turn into a convert.

“It could be about the teams, changes to the track or race rules. It’s very different every time, we don’t just say ‘come to Singapore Sasha because it’s fun and the drivers are hot, the booze is flowing and there’s a lot of entertainment’. It’s very nuanced messaging depending on who you are communicating to and what you are trying to say.”

Artificial intelligence, virtual reality, Blockchain, content marketing, influencers, social media – how do these recent developments rank in terms of importance to travel marketers, in your view?

“The developing new tech is very exciting for any marketer out there and at the same time it is also a challenge to keep up with things and to avoid being caught up in what’s trending. You can’t try everything all of the time. If I’m trying to reach a 65-year-old man, some mediums would not be relevant. That’s where dialogue with your peers becomes so important in order for you to know what is really going on.

“Being in a market like Singapore is an advantage because it is at the forefront of new technology so you do get information quite quickly as to what works and what doesn’t. You just can’t be complacent as a marketer and think that only one medium works, as that just isn’t true anymore. You may be using one channel, but normally you need to supplement it with others whether its social, influencers or content marketing.

“For F1 specifically, it wasn’t that digitally savvy as a platform until maybe the last five years or so. It was always broadcast focused and the emphasis was on print to drive to broadcast. The adoption of say a website for content or a mobile app has been slower for us than it was with a sport like football.

“With the Singapore GP though, digital has always been an important part of our marketing strategy so we were a bit ahead of the game in terms of other F1 races, where the focus was still on print. You have to drive baseline awareness and you have to drive conversions, and what achieves that is different for every market.

“While we may do influencer engagement in places like Korea and India and use key opinion leaders in Thailand or Australia, plus Outbrain content retargeting elsewhere, we know that search always on display works well too in terms of driving awareness and conversion. It’s about finding a balance for a specific market and supplementing the main medium with others.

“We always have a drive-to-web strategy in everything that we do whether it’s radio or a TVC, or Facebook, because the website is where the purchase is made. You’ve got to look at the whole marketing ecosystem and connect up the tools that work well together.”

And which social media channel is most important for you in your day job and why?

“Visual is very important for us so Instagram content is one. Given our audient type in some markets, Facebook is also huge. And Facebook allows for engagement through competitions and polls in a way that Instagram doesn’t. Those two are key.

“Obviously, we do a lot of breaking announcements and retweeting on Twitter And we use Pinterest to some extent too, but Facebook and Instagram are the most important for us. Of course, we do the Chinese equivalents in WeChat and Baidu etc. We also localise content and use geo-targeting.”

Do you guys use Snapchat at all or is that just the wrong demographic for F1?

“We only use Snapchat with filters at the event itself. Then it just becomes one more way to extend engagement during the race weekend. We also do things on Facebook Live during the event including interviews with the drivers and so on.”

Are you finding that consumption habits for F1 are increasingly multi-screen for those that don’t attend the race in person i.e. do fans watch on the big screen while engaging with the F1 community on social media, on their phones, at the same time?

“It really is and it’s something that we encourage too. We want people to engage with the television, but also on social on their phones. My background is in television and indeed my first job was for MTV, but I can’t talk to a TV and it can’t reply back to me so it has its limitations.

“With multi-screen you can not only have deeper engagement, but you can also incentivise people to purchase via social driving traffic to a website or app. We are lucky to have all of these channels today as marketers, which we can use to our benefit.”

Burning rubber, but not ad dollars

What percentage of your ad spend goes on the Google-Facebook duopoly and do you think it’s healthy for two companies to have such a monopoly of power in the marketing landscape?

“For us, Facebook drives awareness much more so than conversion and so our spend is calculated with that in mind. Google is more about conversion. For our direct marketing, more than 50 per cent of it goes towards digital and that includes Google and Facebook.

“But these two companies while they are big players, they are not the be-all and end-all. We also do a lot of content marketing and working with different individual websites and publishers. So it’s also about how we work with the likes of motorsport.com to push content.”

You will be talking at the Mumbrella Asia Travel Marketing Summit. Why did you want to be part of the event and what role do you think such conferences play in the professional ecosystem?

“Well, travel marketing is a huge part of F1 so I’m really interested to see how the discussions play out at the conference. Such events allow you to come together with your peers to learn, to network and to get a sense-check on the things you are doing and see what others are doing. It’s a very healthy exercise to engage in.”


Shifting gears, excuse the pun, you are a high-powered female executive in a sport that is pretty much male-dominated. With #MeToo in mind, have you witnessed any bad behaviour from men within F1 or at F1 events? There must surely be an awful lot of testosterone flying around in the pit lane and beyond?

“In the early years, it really was a male-dominated sport but certainly now there are more females. There are definitely more women marketers now, for example.

“I really do think we have learned to see beyond gender now. Personally, I’ve never experienced any sexism; just the odd raised eyebrow because I am a woman and I look quite young but I’m in a senior position. There is always that shock factor when people first meet me, especially because my name is Sasha and people assume that it must be a man.”

And do you think that if we are indeed moving toward more enlightened times now there might one day be a female F1 driver, which would give you another new marketing angle as well as being a progressive move on the whole for the sport?

“I’m sure there will be and I look forward to that day. It will happen.”

Finally, what does the average day look like for a Formula One marketing director in terms of the split of your duties?

“My typical day starts with a catch-up on what’s been going on around the world in F1 while I’ve been asleep through news alerts, emails and websites. I then always touch base with the heads of departments so that we are all primed for the day ahead. Then it’s the usual team working, and we are a close-knit team at F1, plus calls with partnership organisations.

“One thing I always do is take the lunch hour to myself in my office with the door closed. That is my time to catch-up on my emails and respond to people. The amount of correspondence to deal with really is a lot so that is the only time during the day my door gets closed.

“When something is really urgent, I will get someone in the team to stand in front of me so that we can talk there and then and make a decision on the spot quickly. And then you have the responsibility to engage with the different markets and circuits around the world and that involves a lot of travel and a lot of meetings. It’s always diverse and always interesting.”

Formula One Singapore Grand Prix marketing director Sasha Rafi will be among those speaking at the Mumbrella Asia Travel Marketing Summit in Singapore on April 16 – to see the other speakers participating and to buy your earlybird tickets for $299 before March 8, visit the event website here


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