Exposing the myth of F1’s ‘brand values’

Date published: February 14 2018 - Editor

The removal of grid girls is ultimately a good news story, but Formula 1 could have managed the situation so much better had they not made reference to their mythical “brand values”.

In the world of marketing speak, I’m sure when the term “brand values” is used, ad execs all nod sagely and feel they are amongst friends.

It’s the sort of non-standard English, or jargon as it is better termed, designed to obfuscate; to hint at something, but reveal almost nothing.

Obviously, a brand does not have consciousness, so it can’t have values. All a brand can “have” is what you assign to it.

Pretending your brand has values is a way to imply some sort of morality, but separates those values from any specific person which gives off the stench of corporation weasel words which imply, in the great Groucho Marx tradition, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them…well I have others.”

So when I heard that F1 was dropping the “grid girls” because, according to  Sean Bratches, Managing Director, Commercial Operations at Formula 1, “we feel this custom does not resonate with our brand values and clearly is at odds with modern-day societal norms. We don’t believe the practice is appropriate or relevant to Formula 1 and its fans, old and new, across the world”. Well I found it confusing because, not long ago, you sure as hell did.

If your brand values are what you say and do, and what else can they be, then F1’s brand values have been to very much adorn the presentation of drivers, cars and trophies with women.

When exactly did this stop being their brand value? It was their brand value in the last race. So who changed the values and exactly what other values do they hold? We have no answers to these questions.

And if Sean thinks that using grid girls is at odds with ‘societal norms,’ he’s not paying attention. The bodies of women thought to be good-looking are used to sell almost everything.

If anything is a societal norm, it is that women in various states of undress, tight or minimal clothing are the go-to advertising tool.

By some standards, the grid girls are pretty tame stuff. It’s not as though they’re firing ping pong balls out of their front bottoms in order to start the race, now is it? And given a lot in the sport rather like looking at the girls, including the drivers, is Sean happy with telling them they’re living in the darkness on the edge of town?

What Sean should be saying is that F1 now considers the very concept as sexist and that it now realises it always has been sexist and thus wants no part of it.

But one senses that would be too much plain speaking for a Commercial Operations MD. If you think about it, employing someone to stand beside a car isn’t even a norm that exists anywhere else.

It’s not like F1 is at odds with the alternative progressive grid orthodoxy, is it? This was something F1 invented, promulgated and indeed celebrated for decades. Such a volte face needs proper explanation, not sweeping under the tarmac.

So we need to be told when these mythical brand values changed and why. What date did this revelation occur on? We need them to explain in detail why for so many decades it was part of their brand values and for those people to now admit they were wrong.

Otherwise, it will just look like a bit of PR to head off increasingly emboldened feminists who will no longer put up with this sort of oppressive objectification and are prepared to call people out on it.

Going on about your brand values would have more credibility if you actually had a document that stated what they were.

Fair enough, there’s a welcome modern slavery statement on the website, where it says it is against human rights abuse, bribery and corruption, but nothing about gender, fairness, living wage, equality, the environment, ecology or use of sustainable renewables to name but six. Presumably because these are not part of their brand values.

Not having grid girls is unequivocally a good thing because it’s ridiculous – and it always has been ridiculous – just as it’s always looked ridiculous in every other sport where the sweaty winning geezer is sandwiched between two young teeth-n-tits-n-ass models, for absolutely no good reason at all. As it always has been in any sport where women usher the men to the stage, to the pitch, or whatever it is.

All that garbage is clearly rooted in traditional patriarchal objectification which says women’s role is to pretty up things largely for the entertainment of men. That is a deep-rooted cultural tradition which F1 have had as part of its marketing since the start.

If we’re going to believe they’re genuinely keen on adopting a new feminist approach, then we need to measure all their other brand values against this standard.

If they can’t provide those, we’re entitled to think that this is merely all part of a clumsy rebranding exercise by people who speak in jargon first and last.

Not least because the head of global sponsorship and commercial partnerships at F1, Murray Barnett, recently said: “We’re 100% committed to looking into grid girls and making them a more relevant part of the competition rather than just holding a board and standing next to a car.

“We want to make them fully integrated into the programme and change the perception of what their involvement in the sport is.

“We haven’t quite cracked what this will look like, but we’ve recognised we need to become more progressive there.”

Making grid girls more relevant?! Are you sure? Maybe they could change tyres or wield a dipstick?

Murray’s words read like a parody, don’t they? Though not quite as much of a parody as Bernie Ecclestone’s views.

“I can’t see how a good-looking girl standing with a driver and a number in front of a Formula One car can be offensive to anybody. They are all nicely dressed, I would think people like Rolex and Heineken wouldn’t have girls there who weren’t presentable.”

I hope Sean is calling up Bernie to tell him he is at odds with modern-day societal norms.

The irony is, this is a good news story. It’s great that the grid girls are no more (if indeed that is to be the future, which still feels unsure in the long term). So F1 has no need to talk to us like we’re all middle-managers at an HR conference in a Milton Keynes Marriott.

Just agree a position, be honest and speak like a regular person. Then perhaps those who mistrust F1’s commitment to this issue will have more faith that this is about embracing progressive politics and not mere marketing.

John Nicholson (@JohnnyTheNic)