As sponsorship relationship ends after 32 years, executives reflect on what made Mars Inc. and NASCAR pairing so special

Kyle Busch gave M&M’s a lot of exposure in victory lane, while the brand stuck with him through some controversial moments.Images: getty

Now in his 15th year as a major sponsor of Joe Gibbs Racing, M&M’s Chocolate executive William Clements has never had to hunt for contract terms when trying to get something done. If there was any dispute, he said, the parties would simply work together rather than resorting to entering into a contract for a technical decision.

It’s this kind of close bond that has allowed parent company Mars Inc. to renew its NASCAR agreements over the years and fostered a relationship that spans more than three decades, one that goes far beyond a simple commercial transaction.

“In 32 years in the sport, NASCAR has become more than just property – it’s become more of a family,” said Clements, who has led the NASCAR program for Mars since 2000. “When the people who run your team from racing carry your brand, it means something a little different.

Courtesy of M&M’s Chocolate

It’s also why the end of this partnership is different than most. Mars is leaving NASCAR after this season following decades in which its iconic chocolate brand was arguably the sport’s most recognizable and kid-friendly sponsor. The company says this decision was made because it needs to adapt to a rapidly changing advertising landscape as it focuses on more global opportunities than regional or national ones.

The departure is a big loss for the sport, not only financially – the annual cost to the company was around $25 million – but also culturally, as well-known business-to-consumer brands have become less prevalent. on the grid and less known. , B2B brands have often taken over. Yet, since it’s rare for a sponsorship to last this long, many executives involved in the program argue that now is a time to celebrate.

A major part of that celebration will take place this weekend at Pocono Raceway, where M&M’s will be the title sponsor of the NASCAR Cup Series race to be held approximately one hour from the company’s headquarters in Hackettstown, NJ.

The title sponsorship is intended to commemorate Mars’ long-standing race in sports, and the race is aptly named M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400. Mars held a contest inviting M&M racing fans to prove their fandom, with the winners chosen to attend the race, participate in meetings and win merchandise, and one of them will even be the grand marshal of the race. M&M’s is also hosting a Midway Fan Q&A which will feature M&M’s riders over the years, including Kyle Busch.

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Mars first entered NASCAR in 1990 and added an official partnership with the sanctioning body beginning in 2000. This allowed the company to use the NASCAR bar logo on consumer packaging and retail activations over the years.

As a global consumer packaged goods giant, Mars has used its NASCAR sponsorships in unique ways. For example, instead of just focusing on M&M’s, it promoted many of its various brands in NASCAR, including Combos, Ethel M (Mars’ premium line of chocolates), Snickers, Skittles, Twix, and even Pedigree dog food.

Three memorable NASCAR and Mars activations

2015
“Days of Thunder”
Kyle Busch has been a longtime fan of the 1990 racing movie, and M&M’s took the opportunity to create a two-minute comedy video that showed Busch, Joe Gibbs and Busch’s crew chief Adam Stevens recreating classic moments. from the Tom Cruise movie while interspersing the clip with chocolate product placement. It was to help promote M&M’s Crispy, which returned to store shelves in 2015 after a ten-year hiatus.
2016
Change of number
To help commemorate his 75th birthday, M&M’s convinced Joe Gibbs Racing and NASCAR to change Busch’s usual car number from #18 to #75 for that year’s Sprint All-Star Race. M&M’s official partnership with NASCAR proved helpful, as NASCAR had to agree to let the team change numbers for one race, a highly unusual move in the sport.
2019
Glampground
In the summer of 2019, M&M’s launched the first branded luxury camping experience at a NASCAR race with “Glampground”. The brand set up around 30 branded tents in a private area at Kentucky Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway, and the $500 packages quickly sold out within hours (a handful of tents were reserved for social media influencers, while the rest was sold to fans).

In addition to the iconic paint schemes featuring the M&M characters, the company has used various methods to activate its sponsorship assets.

He sampled his chocolate and candy at various locations around tracks like the mid-way fan, the inner tunnel, or when asking Busch to go around the campgrounds on Halloween weekend with gifts. He hosted a branded “glamping” experience on a few tracks that was essentially a weekend-long extravaganza filled with M&M’s. He gave away a “Best Seats in the House” giveaway to give a handful of fans an enhanced viewing experience.

He also held an annual NASCAR day at his headquarters, where he brought in Busch, JGR owner Joe Gibbs and others to mingle with his employees. Busch also made several appearances at the M&M’s World store in Las Vegas. At the start of the pandemic, the company even hosted Zoom calls that served as race watch parties with key customers and associates, as no in-person hospitality was permitted at the time. Clements sent M&M’s gift packages to attendees in advance.

Busch, who delivered two Cup Series championships on Mars, said one of his favorite activations was when they created a “Days of Thunder” parody video in 2015 with his M&M’s Crispy car. Clements listed a few different favorite activations, including every paint scheme over the years; the experience of glamping grounds; and an Ethel M 40th Anniversary paint scheme that made an appearance at the Ethel M factory in Henderson, Nevada.

Courtesy of NASCAR

Clements also said the decision to promote the Crispy M&M’s line in 2015 was particularly memorable because “green paint schemes were considered bad luck” before the team won that year’s Cup Series championship in the United States. Crispy lime green colors.

A survey of a dozen industry executives about Mars’ impact in NASCAR suggested that what was particularly impressive about the program was its creativity and ability to get kids interested in the sport simply by attaching its brand to it. . Michelle Byron, NASCAR’s vice president of partnership marketing, said the sanctioning body routinely uses M&M’s as a case study when pitching deals to brands.

“They would do activations that have nothing to do with chocolate or NASCAR — kids putting on a Velcro suit and trying to stick to a wall — but they just brought this fun, friendly, family-friendly activity and vibe to the track. “, Byron said.

For JGR president Dave Alpern, it’s not that Mars has done a great thing over the years, but rather “It’s 100 little things they do well – it’s excellence in detail. ” For example, he noted that M&M’s graphic design team has created not only countless unique paint schemes over the years, but also lots of engaging and highly professional social media content around the NASCAR program.

Mars leaders weren’t the only ones deeply involved in the program. Members of the Mars family themselves — like former President Victoria Mars and her sister, Pamela Mars-Wright — have often been seen on the runway. Alpern recalls how often the family would come camping to the tracks in an RV on race weekends. Sometimes the family would even cook for the team the night before a race.

The family has also been extremely loyal over the years to Busch, who has had several controversial moments during his career. For example, the sponsor stuck with it even after Busch punched Joey Logano in the face after a race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2017. Video of the fight went viral and Mars had to come to terms with the fact that Busch had started a combat in their brand colors.

“No matter how controversial or hard times I went through or put everyone through, they took the time and effort to get to know me, they got to know the Gibbs family, and so they got to know me on a personal level and didn’t. I don’t always judge everything from a short clip they saw on TV or an article that was there- low,” Busch told the Sports Business Journal. “That’s a huge reason why it was special to me for so long. We still have that kind of relationship with family members today and something we will always have that means a lot to all of us.

Busch also helped provide the company with wide on-air exposure. After Mars won just a handful of races in his first 15 years in the sport, Busch delivered eight for the company in his first year at JGR.

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Despite all the fun activations and experiments, Mars was very keen on getting a return on investment. Clements noted that when he started with the program in 2000, he was already tracking digital activations through email campaigns or a part of M&M’s website where fans could tell if they liked a paint scheme. The company also closely measured how its retail activations were going and how much chocolate it was selling in key markets where the promotions took place.

Mars was with NASCAR during its boom period in the early 2000s, its struggles in the 2010s and the more stable period it seems to be in now. The fact that Mars has stuck with NASCAR and JGR through tough times over the past decade is not lost on Clements.

“In 32 years, we’ve achieved every goal we set for ourselves,” Clements said. “We stayed in the sport [during its struggles] because it’s a family sport, and we stayed where it leveled off, but now that our brand is global, we need to start reaching out and doing more globally.

It will be difficult for JGR employees next year to hit the runway without any M&M’s logo on their merchandise, Alpern admitted. But he maintains that JGR and Mars will always be linked.

“People may not realize how integrated they really were in the sport,” Alpern said. “When we say we hate to see them go, we do that from a business perspective, but it’s more just personally sad because they’re friends and we’re so used to seeing them on the circuit. But they are part of our family and they will always be part of the family. I expect them to still be at the races in the future and they will always be welcome.

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