Busch League?

July 18, 2008

As a marketer, how would you feel about attaching your brand to an athlete who is almost universally hated?  That’s exactly what M&Ms did when the talented, but mercurial, Kyle Busch joined Joe Gibbs Racing this season after being let go by Hendrick Motorsports, the most successful team in NASCAR.  I’m sure there were a few long discussions about how sponsoring NASCAR’s version of Barry Bonds or Terrell Owens could possibly sell more candy, but halfway through the 2008 Sprint Cup season, the gamble appears to be paying off. 

Comparing Busch to Bonds might seem a little harsh, but it’s saying something when NASCAR fans are routinely compelled to throw beer at this kid during his post-race victory laps instead of consuming it.  NASCAR is all about the drivers, which leads to the question of whether to sponsor a fan favorite who runs in the middle of the pack or a potential winner who is not well liked (e.g., Busch).  I say go with the winner.

M&Ms has been sponsoring NASCAR drivers for more than a decade, including the likes of Ernie Irvan, Elliott Sadler and David Gilliland, but on-track successes over the years were few and far between.  All that has changed with Busch – the brash 23-year-old with a cocky attitude and limitless skills.  Remarkably, he’s won 7 of the first 19 races in the Sprint Cup Series this year.  Even more stunning, he’s starting to win more fans each week with his driving ability and willingness to embrace the role as the ultimate villain.

In a way, it’s like professional wrestling, when they introduce a bad guy, but he’s so good at playing the role of antagonist that fans begin to take to him and the script writers are forced to adapt.

He’s certainly in no danger of claiming NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award, but the same could be said for Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt or Tony Stewart early in their careers. Although you still hear an overwhelming chorus of boos when Busch is introduced every week, all you have to do is listen to the growing number of cheers mixed in and look at the long lines at his merchandise trailer to realize that things are changing a bit.

After his win at the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, Busch was quoted as saying, “As long as they are making noise, you know you’re doing something right.”

All the while, M&Ms is right in the middle of it all – gaining a ton of exposure and sponsorship activation opportunities for the brand at the race track and beyond. With Busch behind the wheel, it’s sure to be a bumpy ride at times, but to me the positives outweigh the negatives. 

Besides, even if you hate Kyle Busch, it’s hard to hate M&Ms.  I don’t even know if it’s possible for controversy to stick to that delicious candy coated shell.