At work, I spend a lot of time thinking about, designing, and deploying B2B content marketing strategies.
One of my favorite pastimes outside work is following the trials and tribulations of Formula 1 motorsport.
This isn’t some Drive to Survive thing; I’ve been a fan since the 1980s, when the great Nikki Lauda and Alain Prost were dueling it out on track.
Contrasting the two businesses—since F1 is as much a business as it is a sport—I see many parallels.
The worlds of marketing and motorsport are both competitive and cutthroat.
Each demands exceptional performance to separate oneself from the pack and win.
Both are expensive but contested by teams with finite resources.
The state of the art in each world is constantly evolving.
Here are eight lessons that B2B marketers can draw from the way F1 teams go about their business.
Very little in motorsport is left to chance, apart from the driving itself.
Hundreds of sensors gather billions of datapoints that are mined for information about how the car is behaving under different track, weather, and race conditions.
Aerodynamic performance, the effects of altitude, windspeed, and track temperature, the choice of tire compound, and the timing of pit stops are game planned in advance of every race.
Under a strictly policed cost cap, the division of time and money between hiring talent, running simulations, developing parts, wind tunnel testing, manufacturing, and logistics is a perpetual juggling act.
It’s made worse when your drivers, compelled to push themselves and their cars to the limit, get it wrong and turn a million dollars of high-tech materials into worthless wreckage.
Without a strategy, a Formula 1 team could not be competitive.
Developing the car on a whim, setting it up on the fly, and picking tires as the car skids to a halt in the pit box would lead to embarrassment on the track.
And so it is for B2B marketing.
Random acts of marketing, unguided by data gathering, detailed analysis, and strategic decision making are a study in futility.
Yet many businesses run their marketing this way.
Lesson #1: If you want to win, start by developing and honing your strategy.
On the face of it, what wins motor races is a combination of a great car and a great driver (and being lucky enough to steer clear of other people’s mistakes).
Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll see that it’s all about people. A lot of people.
It takes hundreds of designers, engineers, technicians, mechanics, statisticians, technical specialists, strategists, physiotherapists, psychologists, and more to make an F1 team successful.
The best-of-the-best aspire to work in Formula 1, but such talent is scarce; no team has the best person in every position.
Nor could they afford to hire them.
Each team must decide which human resources are most critical to the development of its car and the effectiveness of its race operations.
If you’re starting from scratch (or, at least, with an under-performing car), an investment in aerodynamic design and engine performance might be warranted.
If your car has exhibited race-winning potential but the results aren’t coming, perhaps it’s time to invest in a better driver or race strategist, or both.
The right people in the right places can transform a mediocre team into a championship contender (eventually).
So, what about the B2B marketing team?
It takes a village to develop and implement a memorable brand, understand the needs and wants of your target audience, design and produce engaging content, deliver that content across multiple channels, and evaluate and evolve your approach as the marketing landscape changes.
You can’t afford to hire top talent in each of those roles.
Where you choose to invest will depend on how your marketing has been performing and the corporate objectives marketing needs to support.
Lesson #2: Invest in proven talent to transform the aspects of your marketing efforts that are most in need of improvement and where the biggest performance gains can be made.
With data science and artificial intelligence seemingly taking over the world, it’s tempting to bet the farm on computer predictions.
Unfortunately, the real world is still too complex—especially when you throw a few human actors into the mix—to win with that strategy.
F1 teams run extremely sophisticated simulations, calibrated to billions of data points gathered during testing, practice sessions, and races, to predict how their cars will perform at upcoming circuits.
Even then, they’re left experimenting and recalibrating, right up to race day.
Track conditions change from year to year.
Upgrades and adjustments to the cars have unpredictable effects on aerodynamic and mechanical performance.
The car gets damaged as it is hurled around the track, over curbs, and sometimes into contact with other competitors.
Simulations help to set the overall direction for car development and race setup.
Actual, on-track performance—often interpreted through the driver’s body and brain as much as through electronic sensors—is what fine-tunes that direction into something that can win races.
In marketing, we’re bombarded by “copy my approach” and “research shows this” information that promises a blueprint for success.
We’re inundated with data and analytics that seem to tell a story if we squint at them from just the right angle.
We build archetypal personas that sound just like the customers we encounter.
And yet marketing campaigns based on those blueprints and analytics and personas don’t perform in consistent and predictable ways.
There are simply too many variables that we don’t control and often can’t measure.
Lesson #3: Use models, templates, data, analytics, and archetypes to set the general direction of your marketing. Then, run “on-track” experiments to see how things actually work and use human judgement to fine-tune your approach.
Formula 1 races are preceded by practice sessions, during which teams experiment with different tires, engine settings, aerodynamic configurations, and fuel loads to choose a setup that will win during the race.
They understand that there’s more than one way to skin this cat.
Run harder tires that wear more slowly, and your car might be overtaken early in the race but require fewer pit stops and be faster toward the end.
Run softer tires that wear out quickly, and you can gain track position while others are slower, then hope for an incident that brings out the safety car, letting you swap over to new tires while the pack is trundling around at reduced speed.
Configure the car to generate a lot of aerodynamics downforce and you’ll be quick through the corners but less slippery along the straights.
It’s one trade-off after another.
There’s even preparation to be done during the formation lap on the way to the starting grid.
Heat the tires up too much and they’ll lose performance quickly during the race. Heat them up too little, and you’ll lack grip off the start line and be overtaken before the first corner.
Most cars aren’t even loaded with enough fuel to run flat out for the whole race.
One less kilo of fuel can add enough top speed to let you overtake your rival.
But one less kilo of fuel means you’ll have to lift off the throttle at some point to make it through the race—unless that safety car comes out for a few laps, of course.
The devil is most definitely in the details.
Do successful marketers sweat similar things? You bet they do.
Distributing resources between tactics, channels, time of day, and throughout the year involves testing, guessing, and second-guessing.
It’s about anticipating your competitors’ moves as much as planning your own.
Lesson #4: Get into the details when setting up every marketing campaign, including how your choices might affect short- and long-term performance.
A motor race can be won or lost within the first few seconds.
Reacting to the starting lights 0.2 seconds faster than your rival can give you a few meters’ advantage into the first corner, and that’s all it takes to get ahead.
Too much wheelspin off the line and you’ll be out-dragged by the car next door.
Brake too late into the first corner and you’ll be spinning across the grass, watching the entire pack zoom past.
Fight too hard for position and you might get clipped by someone else over-shooting their braking point or find yourself the filling in a three-car sandwich as competitors to left and right vie for the same piece of tarmac.
Take a more conservative approach and you might lose a place or two but avoid contact and have the rest of the race to regain those positions.
What’s the moral for marketing?
I see marketers going “all in” on campaigns, taking an aggressive go-big-or-go-bust approach, in the belief that it’s the only way then can stand out against bigger rivals.
In practice, although going big will win some of the time, it’s as likely to leave you a lap behind and out of options.
Lesson #5: Don’t over-commit yourself early in your marketing strategy. Give results time to materialize and save some resources for tactical moves later.
Even though the lap time difference separating first from last is a mere second, the ten teams competing in Formula 1 aren’t all in the running for the big prizes.
A handful of teams are legitimate contenders for pole position and the race win each week.
Another handful are consistent middle-of-the-pack contenders, vying for world championship points each week—with the end of season points total having a big impact on the share of sponsorship money each team earns.
And a couple of teams are consistently bringing up the rear, trying to engineer their way up the grid and into the point-scoring positions.
Those rankings can change significantly from season to season as teams make major developmental changes to their cars—some successfully and others less so.
But, within the season, they each know who their closest competitors are—and that’s who they’re really racing each weekend.
Haas, this year’s lowest scoring team on 12 points after 19 races, isn’t racing against Red Bull, this year’s runaway winners on 731 points. They’re racing against Alfa Romeo (16 points), Alpha Tauri (16 points), and Williams (28 points).
Mercedes (371 points), Ferrari (349 points), McLaren (256 points), and Aston Martin (236 points) are all working feverishly to close the gap to Red Bull and to beat each other to second and third place each weekend.
In short, they know who they’re racing.
Likewise, your business should know which companies it’s competing with for online eyeballs and prospects’ attention.
If much larger corporations are spending millions of dollars to court some of the same people, you’re probably not in that race.
Instead, your attention should be focused on businesses with similar budgets and product offerings against which you are engaged in a day-to-day competition for attention.
Lesson #6: Know which companies you are competing with for prospects’ attention and pay relatively less heed to what bigger and better-funded teams are doing. You can also ignore lesser companies whose inferior marketing efforts aren’t competing with yours.
Formula 1 teams are a bundle of nervous energy on race weekend.
Pit wall strategists and race engineers chew away their fingernails, staring at screens of real-time data streaming in from their cars, their competitors, and the track.
For about 2 hours on a Sunday afternoon, they get to find out whether all the preparation will pay dividends.
Twenty cars, twenty drivers, twenty implementations of strategy and setup, the track, and the weather will combine to produce a race, the details of which are beautifully impossible to predict.
What is more, the teams and drivers will take steps to influence that outcome as it unfolds.
In a multi-player, high speed chess match, they try to anticipate and counter each other’s tactical moves with unexpected strategies and split-second decisions.
Changing tires one lap before your opponent can yield a few seconds advantage while your new tires perform better than their old ones—a so-called undercut.
Conversely, running several laps longer before changing tires will mean that your next set of tires is fresher toward the end of the race, a potential over-cut.
The only thing that’s certain is that not everyone’s strategy will play out as they hope.
And it’s the same in marketing.
No matter how detailed or data-driven your strategy, it won’t be perfect.
No matter how carefully you plan and prepare for each campaign, they won’t all be winners.
The market landscape is constantly shifting as customers’ preferences change, competitors react, and external factors push everyone around.
The more effectively you react to those changes, the better your overall performance will be.
Put another way, if you fail to respond to changes in the market, you’ll get left behind by competitors who adapt more quickly and effectively.
Lesson #7: You must constantly be evaluating and evolving your marketing approach in response to your target customers, competitors, and the market at large. Not everything you try will work, but you must be continuously experimenting, evaluating, and evolving if you want to win in the long run.
Formula 1 drivers are incredibly fit, have cat-like reflexes, and have honed their driving skills to Samuri sword sharpness.
Arguably, they also have a screw loose.
Driving a car at speeds exceeding 200 miles per hour, on the limit of tire adhesion, within inches of concrete barriers and other fast-moving vehicles isn’t for the faint of heart.
Braking a split-second later than your opponent and trusting that your car will stick to the road (and find clear tarmac that your opponent isn’t already occupying) takes incredible judgement, skill, and bravery.
Racecar safety has improved beyond recognition over the past 30 years, but serious injuries and even fatalities still occur across the various categories and formulae.
When an F1 driver dons his gear and sits behind the wheel, they know they are taking great risks in the name of exceptional performance and sport.
It’s what they live—and tragically, occasionally die—for.
Without living on that edge, they know they will not win.
Fortune favors the brave.
It’s a bit melodramatic to say the same is true for marketing; there’s no physical life and death involved.
But great marketing is separated from average marketing by fine margins and the willingness of marketers to try bold and brave things.
Marketing success certainly does not favor the timid, the conservative, or the boring.
To stand out, you must take some risks.
Lesson #8: If you want to win, be prepared to take some risk. When you see a gap, go for it. When a chance to get ahead of your rival presents itself, take it. When you wind up in the gravel trap with your marketing car in ruins, accept that it’s part of the sport. Fix it and race again.
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Image credits: Adobe Stock