Not a single successful licensing program in the history of successful licensing programs has ever launched without exhaustive research first being conducted to clearly define its target audience. The key to success is having a deep understanding of a brand’s market. And it’s the only irrefutable way to ensure that the products licensee partners develop will appeal to consumers on an emotional level.
Tough to argue that point, right?
But, what if the brand is a highly-established one, yet the target audience to whom the brand would like to appeal through its fresh, new licensing program is new to the brand? To make things even more challenging, what if the audience is broad enough to have two distinct segments? Such was the case when NASCAR determined that there was a need to create a comprehensive, youth-focused licensing program around the NASCAR Brand to establish and grow its youth business through the development of licensed products across all categories.
Currently, there’s an ongoing key initiative at NASCAR to engage youth at every level. Their own market research revealed that cars, racing, wheels and crashes are consistently a top play pattern generically in the kid’s space. And there are several franchises that successfully leverage a youth spin on racing and car themes, including Disney Pixar’s Cars, Disney’s Mickey and the Roadster Racers and Nickelodeon’s Blaze and the Monster Machines, to cite just a few. Therefore, NASCAR wanted to establish a youthful take on its brand from a unique and ownable point of view.
There were hurdles to be overcome, however, for this youth-focused licensing program, dubbed TEAM NASCAR, to be successful in the marketplace. Firstly, the perception that toy licensees and retail buyers had of NASCAR as an adult-oriented brand needed to change. Although there are aisles full of kid’s racing-themed products, they were struggling to visualize how the NASCAR brand could translate to kid-relatable designs. Secondly, NASCAR segmented the youth audience into two definitive age groups – Toddlers (ages 2-5) and Kids (ages 6-10) – each with distinctly different levels of awareness of auto racing, and of the NASCAR Brand, in particular. Therefore, it would be impossible to establish a single visual aesthetic and expect that it would effectively appeal to both age groups. This begged the question: With each requiring its own unique visual appeal, would it be possible for two distinctive looks to coexist within a single licensing program without compromising the overall visual cohesiveness of the brand at retail?
Getting the design aesthetic right through research
When NASCAR’s Licensing and Consumer Products team decided to engage Design Force, Inc. to develop the style guide for the TEAM NASCAR licensing program, our initial goal was to leverage our pre-design research process to uncover attributes of the NASCAR Brand that would translate well visually while appealing to a youth audience at every level. We conducted a brand evaluation, focusing not only on the primary NASCAR visual assets, including the recently-updated logo and vibrant brand color palette, but also on its brand personality. Traits like power, competition, bold, tough, fearless, passion, heroic and celebration rose to the top of the list because they have the potential to resonate with and inspire a young audience.
In an effort to generate excitement and to create a visual experience unique to the brand, our creative strategy for the licensing program was rooted heavily in key moments from NASCAR racing that reflect competitiveness, racing strategy and winning. Moments like the green flag start, drafting, the bump ’n run, pit stops, the dramatic finish and the victory lap and burnout provide great visual cues to depict in artwork and design elements for the program.
Our pre-design research culminated with the development of a unique design aesthetic for each of the youth age groups. And the distinction between the two is very clear. The Toddler design aesthetic is simple and clean, with some subtle overlapping of elements and the use of icons to infuse fun and energy into the program’s design elements. The illustration style incorporates details of today’s NASCAR vehicles in chunkier, more preschool-appropriate proportions, with a pronounced, forward lean to suggest speed and competitiveness. The look is approachable and wholesome with a bold, bright palette, yet still has the right amount of attitude to reflect the NASCAR brand personality. The Kid design aesthetic is more complex and layered, and infused with a variety of textures as accents to its design elements - grit to represent airborne tire rubber, converging lines and distressed sweeping arcs to represent speed, and overlapping swirls to represent skid and donut marks. The illustration style is a more authentic take on today’s NASCAR vehicles, with more mature, aggressive proportions. The look is much more dramatic and edgy with a bold, muted color palette, yet still aligns with the NASCAR brand personality.
Cohesiveness through continuity of storytelling
Although the two design aesthetics are visually differentiated to appeal to each youth age group individually, they share enough common characteristics to speak in a single brand voice at retail. The TEAM NASCAR logo is a single brand mark designed to represent the program in its entirety. The unique color palettes for each design aesthetic share the three NASCAR brand colors. The fun, NASCAR-centric editorial phrases we developed capture the vernacular of the sport and work equally as well in design elements for either youth audience. And the faux sponsors and vehicle paint schemes we created for the illustrations establish continuity across both styles.
The cohesiveness of the TEAM NASCAR licensing program is also clearly conveyed through the storytelling depicted in the illustrated racing scenarios. Ten dramatic compositions were created for each target segment, then incorporated, along with the editorial phrases, into a broad range of design elements, including badges, patterns, borders, type treatments and iconography.
As inspiration for each segment’s proper visual aesthetic, we created product applications representing a wide variety of consumer product categories. And we created an overarching packaging program for TEAM NASCAR that differs only in the illustration used to help consumers distinguish between each target segment’s products.
Successful licensing programs, particularly those that are core to the brand rather than trend-based, benefit from being presented to consumers in a cohesive manner. Appealing to multiple target audiences within a single licensing program is certainly achievable if enough core characteristics are shared among its design elements to ensure that the essence and attitude of the overarching brand aren’t lost.