When an F1 sponsorship crashes

The Renault F1 car before (left) and after ING pulled its sponsorship

The Renault F1 car before (left) and after ING pulled its sponsorship

While watching Speed’s coverage of the Formula 1 race in Singapore this past weekend, I noticed that the Renault cars were missing a major component: the giant ING sponsor logo. Most of us American sports fans missed the drama a couple of weeks ago while we were busy with football and baseball, but basically one of the world’s most lucrative sports had a key team accused of throwing a race.

This crash by Nelson Piquet brought out the safety car, ensuring teammate Fernando Alonso a 1st-place finish.

This crash by Nelson Piquet last year brought out the safety car, ensuring teammate Fernando Alonso a 1st-place finish.

What the Renault team did was huge: in last year’s Singapore event, one of its two drivers crashed so the other driver could win the race. It’s difficult to find a parallel in American sport, but the significance is just as serious as Pete Rose betting on baseball, or the Black Sox Scandal of 1919. In the end, Renault was nearly suspended from the sport, its two highest ranking team officials were banned for life, the offending driver was given immunity for his testimony, and the winning driver, who claimed to be unaware of the machinations, received no penalty.

But the B2B marketing impact is this: ING, the Dutch financial giant, pulled its multi-million dollar team sponsorship immediately. The embarrassment factor for ING must have been enormous. While it does offer some financial services to consumers, ING also has a tremendous B2B business with commercial and institutional investors, and a black eye by being associated with a cheating team in one of the world’s largest sports was not something they could tolerate.

But why would a firm which relies on business from other businesses invest so heavily in a global sport televised largely to consumers? ING touted their sponsorship as “aimed at delivering revenue and raising the global brand awareness,” which it probably did — but was it to the right audiences? NASCAR has promoted its sponsorship packages as ideal B2B platforms; the Toyota Formula 1 team also lists a sponsorship as the “perfect setting for . . . .nurturing business relationships among clients and key decision makers” (it’s at about 2:55 on the linked video).

What I haven’t been able to find, however, is ROI figures for a B2B investment of this type. I’d love to see them, as I’m sure someone has figured out that their sponsorship is “worth it.”

While I love Formula 1 as much as the next guy (ok, well, since I’m a bit of an oddball here in America, maybe I should say the next European), I’m not sure that I would feel comfortable risking my company’s reputation by plastering its logo on the sides of a vehicle whose performance — and whose employees I can’t control. Especially if the marketing reach of that sponsorship may or may not actually benefit my B2B company.

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