Charisma doesn't win auto races, but it does attract the sponsors and marketing partners that fund the sport.
Fortunately, international race car driver Milka Duno has both charisma and skill at winning the checkered flag.
A former model with four master's degrees, the Venezuelan-born Ms. Duno scored a marketing win in 2004 when she appeared in TV and magazine ads for the launch of the new Pontiac G6.
It was Pontiac's largest Hispanic marketing campaign ever, according to the company. And in July 2005, Pontiac announced she would appear in a new campaign for the G6 coupe and Solstice models.
"Our formal research shows that Milka is becoming recognized with Pontiac," says Sonia Maria Green, director of Hispanic diversity marketing and sales at General Motors (GM). "She is a woman, she is beautiful, she is sexy, and she is smart – like Pontiac, she changes perceptions and defies convention."
Pontiac and Ms. Duno also share a record of high performance. Last year Pontiac sold more than 474,000 vehicles, ranking third among GM brands. Ms. Green confirms that the G6 model that Ms. Duno promotes "is one of GM's volume leaders and is unquestionably Pontiac's volume leader."
On the track, Ms. Duno made history as the first woman to win a major international sports car race in North America, with a first-place finish in the 2004 Grand Prix of Miami. By the end of 2004 – her first year in the Rolex Sports Car Series – she ranked fifth among 80 drivers in total points.
According to Pontiac's advertising manager Mary Kubitskey, "Milka's continued achievements and performance as a race car driver continue to make her an ideal spokesperson for Pontiac."
"It's a dream for a driver to have important corporations on their team," says Ms. Duno. "I think Pontiac was looking at the Hispanic market and how it was growing. They were looking for a personality – not necessarily an athlete. At the time, I was a woman in a male sport, I had won races, [and] I was in the university. They analyzed many factors in relation to the product, and when they looked at all these characteristics, they felt I could help them."
Pontiac's decision to associate a specific car model with a personality defies the current trend in marketing.
"The use of personality testimonials in advertising is down," says George Peterson, president of AutoPacific, a marketing and product consulting firm for the automobile industry. He notes that since Chrysler's multimillion-dollar deal with singer Celine Dion flopped, "the jury is still out on the value of testimonials."
"I would not say it is common practice to use a celebrity spokesperson for a car," agrees Ms. Green of GM. "You run the danger of having the celebrity overpower the product, which would be dangerous for the advertiser. It is a rare fit when the celebrity fits as nicely with a product as Milka does with Pontiac."
Ms. Duno's racing success ties into her marketing deal because a Pontiac engine powers her car. While it's unusual for a driver to promote a company off-track, Ms. Duno has two such deals – one with Pontiac and another with CITGO, a subsidiary of Petróleos de Venezuela, the national oil company in her native country. CITGO is the official sponsor of her car and racing team. Off-track, she appeared in a seven-city billboard campaign for the gasoline retailer last summer. She also publicly promotes her favorite charity, the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Her popularity as a marketer stems from her appeal to multiple audiences – primarily Hispanics and race fans, but also women, auto enthusiasts, and youth. And increasingly, the Hispanic and race crowds are converging. Already in 2002, a report from the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) indicated that 8.6 percent of its fan base was Hispanic. That fell short of the Hispanic proportion of the U.S. population (13.3 percent at the time), but represented a 23 percent increase since 1999.
The Hispanic motorsports enthusiast is a prime marketing target. The NASCAR study found that:
• 73 percent of Hispanic fans feel loyalty toward racing sponsors,
•66 percent of this fan base has an interest in auto mechanics, and
•30 percent keep current on the latest in automotive technology.
Also, two thirds of Hispanic NASCAR fans are male, and one third fall into the coveted 18-to-24 age category. "When you are looking for the hard-core auto enthusiast who goes to the race on Sunday and buys a car on Monday, that's who you get in racing," says Mr. Peterson.
To reach those racing fans, Ms. Duno makes appearances at the track to cheer for other CITGO driving teams. For car enthusiasts, she has appeared in the Pontiac exhibit at seven auto shows around the country, including Miami, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, New York, and Chicago. Most of these shows catered to Hispanic audiences.
For the emerging Hispanic youth market, Ms. Duno has a ready pitch based on her professional success. "An important part of my career now is the message about the value of education," she says. "It's nice when I can go to a school with my sponsor and talk about that. I want to give a positive message to young Hispanics."
"Milka's educational background and pursuit of action and performance are attractive credentials," agrees Mark-Hans Richer, Pontiac's marketing director. "Her independence and achievements provide a positive and engaging role model for women and Hispanics alike."
In the future, Ms. Duno hopes to raise her profile – without taking her eyes off the road. "I never thought I would be a race car driver," she laughs. "Of course, I want to win more races. But I concentrate on my present [because] only the present will help me have a successful future."
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