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THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
HIGH PERFORMANCE MARKETING
"We want ethanol to take its place along with the other major petroleum companies. We are high performance, we are serious, we are world-class and we are taking steps to market ourselves as such..." - Paul Dana, Team Ethanol
I first saw Paul Dana of Team Ethanol and the Indy Racing League (IRL) Menards Infiniti Pro Series several months ago at the Mid America CropLife Association annual meeting where he spent an hour or so motivating agribusiness folks about what it takes to succeed. From my perspective, Dana did a great job because he motivated me to write a column about his efforts to promote ethanol in the IRL and take ethanol use and visibility in this country to a new level. Arguably, there's no better venue than racing to get your message in front of millions of fans in person and on television each year.

A graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Dana is a second-year racer in the Menards Infiniti Pro Series, which is the official development series of the IRL. His plan for this year is to participate in the majority of races in the Infiniti series and hopefully graduate to the Indy Car Series in 2005, he says. And this guy has marketing savvy well beyond his years. He speaks with a voice of years of experience when he talks about his marketing strategy for his team and ethanol.

"Our marketing strategies are at three levels," Dana says. "First, it's business to business, then business to consumer and finally business to the automotive/petroleum industry. We have the engineering capacity with these vehicles to widely shift the propulsion system. We have the ability to blend petroleum and ethanol. This is not pie in the sky. Isn't it time we move to the next generation of fuel technology?"

SPONSORS LEAD THE WAY

Without sponsors, Dana's efforts would be only a dream planted in a cornfield in Iowa waiting for emergence. His main sponsors are the design-build ethanol plant construction firms Fagen Inc., ICM Inc. and Broin Companies. Ron Lamberty, vice president/market development director of the American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE), among others, helped connect Dana with Fagen and the others in the early going.

"These folks see the big picture that ethanol delivers improved vehicle performance while reducing emissions and improving air quality," Dana says. "We know that when we reduce foreign imports, ethanol creates jobs here in the U.S. and helps agriculture and rural America."

When Dana went after these sponsors a couple years ago, let's just say there was "sticker shock" in the industry. While some dirt track racers in the Midwest were looking for $10,000 to sponsor a car that used 25 percent ethanol in local races, here was Dana looking for somewhere in the neighborhood of a million bucks to be in the IRL and give ethanol a real shot to play with the big boys in the sponsorship world.

The ethanol show car, sponsored by Fagen Inc., ICM Inc. and Broin Companies, promotes ethanol as the next generation of fuel technology.
"We've spent so much time in the past defending the ethanol industry or ethanol as a fuel itself that what Dana has done is change the debate and the image of ethanol among its target audiences," says Lamberty. "All of a sudden the petroleum market is seeing ethanol as a performance fuel and something that's good for a car. What he's doing is changing the perception of people who use ethanol."

GETTING THE MESSAGE OUT

Now, back to those marketing strategies to reach consumers and businesses, including:

  • Displaying a special Ethanol/Cardinals car at Busch Stadium in St. Louis for a Cards-Braves baseball game last summer. Racers were interviewed on the field following the game.

  • Significant promotions during IRL events, with the ethanol logo on T-shirts, autograph cards and other items, autograph sessions for Dana and his fans, plus other related tactics to spread the word about the wonders of ethanol.

  • Taking the ethanol show car to petroleum and related industry trade shows. This was done at four shows in 2003, and 10 are scheduled for this year.


"'Win Sunday, sell Monday' is a standard racing motto," says Dana. "We want ethanol to take its place along with the other major petroleum companies. We are high performance, we are serious, we are world-class and we are taking steps to market ourselves as such. We have to drive this message home with limited resources and budget. Our most effective business-to-business efforts are to be present where the petroleum companies do business."

"One of our key marketing goals relating to the Ethanol team has been to tie their on-track activities into our efforts in expanding ethanol awareness and developing new markets," Lamberty says. "We need to have a unified message to sell ethanol. Then we need to find a vehicle (no pun intended) to take that message to the general public."

Dana thinks long term. Because racing vehicles are always at the forefront in engine research, the industry's top engineers "routinely cycle through the racing program," Dana says. "When ethanol is present within the IRL, we are visible to the top levels of management talent in the automotive companies. Sure, it's hard to measure the success here because it's slow. But we need to be at the table when fuel discussions are being held."

Can ethanol replace methanol and be the motor sports fuel of the future? "Our goal is the entire IRL, all 33 cars," Dana says. "There are ongoing discussions. But we need to construct a coherent marketing strategy to do that kind of deal. Ethanol as a wholesale industry doesn't know how to behave like a retail industry, but the IRL is looking for committed partners who know how to market themselves to race fans.

"It's time for the ethanol industry to get some things done and not sit on the sidelines. We need help. It's not easy to overturn 40 years of Indy racing car experiences. It's going to take a concerted effort," Dana predicts.

Has Dana moved the peg in getting more attention and positive visibility for ethanol? "Absolutely," Lamberty says. "If nothing else, he's made us think a little bigger about ourselves. We need to be in those markets. Most of the ethanol plants that are members of ACE are the smaller, farmer-owned plants. For those people to see themselves with ethanol on an Indy racing car would not have been possible had it not been for Paul. The great thing about Paul is he wasn't just looking for a sponsor when he went looking for financial help. He believes in the product and wants to help the industry grow. He's making believers out of us as he works to pursue his goals."

Lamberty says it's time for the ethanol industry to get on the field. "A few years ago, if Paul - or anyone else - suggested that we should collect millions for national promotions for ethanol, they would have been told 'good luck and go ahead and try.' Today, we need to be there helping Paul get that done."

Back in 2002, the ethanol car was a Dana dream. Today, it's taking shape and becoming a reality as Dana continues his efforts to market ethanol as the fuel of the future for IRL. "It all started with cold calls to the industry," Dana recalls. "At the time, I suggested that now was the moment for ethanol to take its place as a performance fuel and market itself on the national and international stage. We're not there yet, but..." AM

Den Gardner is owner of Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.


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