Branding at full speed: Is Lewis Hamilton the new king of sports brands?
Formula One (F1) returns this weekend from its summer break, emanating from the beautiful Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. The Olympics might have just ended, but there’s another Brit worth getting behind for the rest of the year. Lewis Hamilton is a man on a mission. He’s got three F1 championships to his name at the age of 31 – and he’s got his eyes on a fourth. Hamilton is in his prime, big time.
There’s more to Hamilton than just being an exceptionally quick racing driver in an extraordinarily engineered car. He’s transforming himself into a global brand. It’s a commonly trodden route for top athletes, but only an elite few have hit the heights that Lewis is aiming for. Michael Jordan is without doubt the most successful personal sports brand ever. Nike is estimated to make $ 2 billion in revenue per year from the Air Jordan brand and range of products – and Jordan himself is reportedly worth a cool billion, despite retiring way back in 2003. Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo lays claim to being the richest sports star currently competing, raking in $176 million in 2015. By contrast, Hamilton took home $92 million – but his haul from personal endorsements is four times that of his nearest F1 rival, Sebastian Vettel.
A cut above
Branding and sponsorships saturates F1 – more than any other sporting competition. At any given race or event, drivers are covered from head to toe in sponsors’ logos, as brands scrap for any slither of air time and any chance to have their logo flashed on screen. Drivers are used to attending mandatory sponsor events in order to represent their racing teams and promote their relationships with their key financial backers. Lewis is taking this platform further and separating himself from any other driver on the grid. He’s creating a personal brand that’s bigger than simply being a competitor at the pinnacle of his sport. As Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone succinctly put it: “Lewis wants to be famous”.
Lewis’s stock is rising; Forbes recently labelled him the most marketable driver in the sport and has him 49th on its top 100 celebrity list, ahead of rival sports stars Tiger Woods, Floyd Mayweather and Rory McIlroy. From personal endorsements of high-end brands and relationships with celebrity girlfriends to partying with Rihanna in Barbados and celebrating with Justin Bieber on the podium at the Monaco Grand Prix, Hamilton has a superstar aura that his fellow drivers on the grid just don’t have.
Social Grand Prix
In a recent article, CNBC reporter Michelle Castillo states: “Today, social media like Twitter and Facebook and digital video platforms make it easier to share a curated personality.” And this is exactly what Lewis is doing. Take his Instagram account, for example. His profile description reads: “Inspire, spread love, and live everyday to the fullest” – and this mantra is backed up by his posts, which display a fun, jet-setting lifestyle. You can often find shots of Hamilton posing in various cities around the world, visiting beaches on luxurious islands or yachting across clear waters. By adding a couple of clever sponsor product shots such as wearing Bose headphones or placing a Bose portable speaker in front of him, Lewis has turned his social media activity into a money-spinner.
And then there’s Hamilton’s Twitter account, where he connects with 3.6 million followers on top of the 3.2 million on Instagram. His lifestyle is one that we shouldn’t be able to relate to, yet Lewis’s marketing team makes us feel part of it with the carefully crafted hashtag #TeamLH. It appears constantly over race weekends, making his fans feel that they are all in it together, that they are part of every pole position, every podium finish and every disappointment – #Team LH is a community.
Ecclestone stated that he believes Lewis is the best champion that F1 has had in a long time. Not just because of his talent as a driver, but also because of the breadth of people and industries he’s able to reach. “He manages to get all different walks of life: red carpet, fashion business and music – you name it… he is a super promoter of the sport.”
Rock ‘n’ roll racing
The grid of current drivers is the best F1 has seen in years, but none is quite as big a draw as Lewis Hamilton. More than 135,000 people went to Silverstone for the British Grand Prix this year. Everywhere you looked people were wearing caps with the Mercedes logo emblazoned on the front – and Lewis Hamilton’s logo on the back. The scenes after Hamilton’s win looked more like something from one of the summer’s music festivals than an F1 race. Thousands of fans ran to the grid to get a glimpse of their hero on the podium. These devotees later waited for Hamilton to emerge from the Mercedes garage and he crowd surfed across them – in that moment he was a rockstar.
Lewis’s own personal logo creates an identity that is used across his Mercedes F1 range. The fact that the agency enlisted to create it describes the F1 champion as a “lifestyle brand” is particularly telling. His popular snapback cap (worn at every race or promoter event) keeps fans dipping into their wallets to buy limited edition versions for different races. In the lead up to the British Grand Prix, pop-up Mercedes F1 stores started appearing in local shopping centres, selling Hamilton merchandise. Consumers aren’t buying into the Mercedes brand, or even F1 – they’re buying into Brand Hamilton.
Hamilton’s brand and persona doesn’t attract all F1 fans, of course. Many have a love/hate relationship with the British driver. His exuberant celebrations and thank you messages when everything goes well are a stark contrast to his sulky nature when things go wrong. It’s this contrast in temperament that can rub fans up the wrong way and is something Hamilton needs to work on if he aspires to hit the levels of brand Jordan and Ronaldo. But perhaps it’s indicative of Lewis’s make-up – he’s one of the most competitive and successful racing drivers on the F1 circuit. And at the moment, he’s the fastest, too.
A recent Forbes article asserted that 18 year-old Red Bull driver, Max Verstappen, has the potential to be “the world's most valuable athlete” after he became the youngest racer to win a Grand Prix in May. But for now, Lewis is firmly in pole position – on and off the track.
Darren has left The Frameworks.