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Why crypto exchange OKX is choosing an F1 sponsorship over a traditional media mix

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Marketing executives at cryptocurrency exchange OKX believe they can travel in the slipstream of a resurgent Formula One and put space between their brand and the crypto sector’s dented public reputation.

Prior to this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix racing event, OKX revealed its latest bid to emphasize its association with F1 team McLaren — a one-off tribute to the late, legendary wheelman Ayrton Senna that saw the team’s cars and drivers decked out in the colors of his native Brazil.

According to OKX’s chief marketing officer Haider Rafique, consumer perceptions of the crypto sector are turning a corner. And in the wake of Netflix’s docuseries “Drive To Survive,” er, driving new viewers toward the sport, he said he views its sponsorship of McLaren as key to getting OKX, the world’s second-largest crypto exchange by trading volume, into the winner’s circle.

Monaco is F1’s most glamorous stage, and much of the city is turned over to the circus of the Grand Prix. Café culture gives way to crash barriers, the hotel beaches are closed and sidewalks blocked in order to provide more space for champagne deliveries. Meanwhile, streetwise Monégasques are joined by sunburned motorsports fans wearing logo-festooned tour jackets and journalists (including this one; OKX’s PR firm provided Digiday with travel and accommodation for the event).

Rafique said he believes the F1 fandom has a “huge overlap” with OKX’s target audience of “crypto curious” consumers. As such, OKX is keen to fit into this bustle and industry. At a launch event staged to reveal the new uniforms and car paint schemes in Monaco days before the race itself, Rafique appeared in one of the same canary yellow and parakeet-green jerseys as McLaren executives. The message: We’re all on the same team here.

“McLaren’s a fighting brand. You’ve seen that over the last year — coming from the back of the grid to the way the team is now performing. To be part of that journey is just incredible,” said Rafique.

An OKX spokesperson declined to share how much the exchange’s partnership with McLaren had cost it. But McLaren isn’t OKX’s only foray into sports and culture. The exchange currently sponsors the Tribeca Film Festival, a LIV golf team and soccer club Manchester City (the latter’s shirt sleeve placement cost OKX a reported $70 million).

“I think you not only get better distribution with sponsorships, but you also get in an audience base that is more emotionally attached to the team. You end up building a relationship with their community,” said Rafique, who added that “it makes our brand integrated in a more meaningful way. I think that’s a better play than just a heavy mix of traditional media.”

Though Senna was closely associated with Monaco — his record of wins on the Riviera circuit has never been matched — the timing of this latest activation isn’t just about the F1 calendar. Rafique told Digiday that, six months on from the fraud conviction of FTX co-founder Sam Bankman-Fried, consumers are losing their wariness of the cryptocurrency sector.

“That perception is now dated,” said Rafique, who also said he believes that institutional milestones such as the SEC’s approval of Ether, Bitcoin and Solana exchange-traded funds this year mean it’s time to ramp up marketing efforts, not to go under the radar. A Harris Poll survey conducted this month found that 47% of U.S. voters said they expect cryptocurrencies to form part of their investment portfolio, up from 40% in November 2023, while the number of voting-age consumers who said they saw crypto as a good investment rose from 19% to 23% in the same period. But with the fallout of FTX’s collapse still in the air — an FTX exec was sentenced to over seven years in jail just this week — converting that curiosity won’t be easy.

“I am less concerned about a negative perception [than with] the lack of education,” Rafique said. “We have to get the world to see that there is more than just price speculation in crypto.”

A new generation of fans

Though McLaren’s fortunes on the circuit have varied, chief executive Zak Brown and CMO Louise McEwen have made the team a frontrunner in Formula One’s commercial race. Last season it added a digital screen to the side of the driver’s cockpit, providing the ability to cycle through sponsor placements every 45 seconds.

Advancements like that have come as F1 has undergone a “resurgence” in the wake of Netflix’s “Drive To Survive” series, said McEwen. Viewing figures for the breakthrough show declined for its latest season, but marketers are still keen to make the most of the new audiences it’s credited with bringing to the sport.

“Formula One has done an incredible job of attracting a newer, younger generation to the sport,” Rafique said.

McEwen said that the Senna-focused uniforms provided a chance to link that new cohort with the team’s past glories, “to really ensure that his legacy lives on for a new generation of fans.”

That new generation includes McLaren’s current drivers. Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris were both born years after Senna’s untimely death, but both idolize him. “He’s a legend of the sport,” Piastri told reporters at the launch.

As well as paying tribute to Senna, OKX is keen to highlight its links to McLaren’s future. Its profile rises farther the closer Piastri and Norris get to the podium, Rafique said (the pair finished the Grand Prix second and fourth, respectively), and the exchange previously spotlighted Piastri in video ads directed at his native Australian market.

Choosing a partnership over traditional marketing

Rafique said that the partnership had been more effective at getting OKX into the hearts, minds and bank accounts of consumers than traditional media channels, so much so that OKX is not buying additional media slots from broadcasters covering F1.

“A lot of marketers tend to have a media mix heavy on media buying; I feel that partnering with sports teams gets you a lot more than just a traditional media buy,” said Rafique.

A spokesperson for the exchange said it was too soon to measure the impact of the weekend’s collaboration, but McEwen and Rafique said they tracked audience sentiments with social listening and advertising value equivalent (AVE). Previous events in a similar vein have paid dividends; a pop-up viewing event staged for September’s Singapore Grand Prix drew an audience of 12,000, over a quarter of whom opened wallets with OKX.

“[OKX] is in a race to generate as much awareness as possible in the hope that people will come to their platform. It makes sense as a media buy,” Tim Crow, a brand consultant specializing in the sports sector, told Digiday.

“It’s the only truly global sports platform that happens every single year,” said Alex Charkham, chief strategy officer at Omnicom sports agency Fuse.

He said that the fact that the racing season occupies so much of the year, every year, and takes in so many locations and key consumer markets, is central to its value for commercial partners. Though other sporting events such as soccer’s World Cup might offer larger overall audiences, “they only take place across a month, whereas F1 is now 24 races in all major regions,” Charkham added.

OKX operates in all but two of F1’s 24 regions (it only trades partially in India, and is banned alongside other cryptocurrency operators from China). Rafique suggested the spread of markets, as well as the younger fans that have found the sport, make it ideal for OKX.

“Younger people are coming in, watching the sport and getting more and more engaged,” he said. “Crypto comes very naturally for those same young people.”

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