Five Minnesota companies sponsored cars racing in Monday's Daytona 500. One of those cars was involved in a fiery crash and another won the race.
Scores of companies view auto racing sponsorships as a smart marketing move — even if racing seems far removed from a company's business.
NASCAR draws millions of fans to its races in attendance and on TV. These days, the demographics of those fans are much like those of other major sports, reflecting the broad economic and social diversity of the country.
Most companies find that many of their customers are NASCAR fans. So it is unsurprising that Target, General Mills, 3M, Fastenal and Best Buy chose NASCAR sponsorships to reach and influence customers.
"The NASCAR viewers and the followers of the sport have become younger," said Drew Panayiotou, Best Buy's senior vice president of marketing.
"It's a younger male that is very technology focused. And that's right up the sweet spot of our customer base. We target a customer that wants to maximize technology in their life."
The consumer electronics retailer has been a NASCAR sponsor for seven years. Best Buy was a lead sponsor of the winning car, a Ford driven by Matt Kenseth. He took the checkered flag at the end of a crash-filled season-opening race.
Panayiotou loved the win.
"Clearly when you do run upfront and you do win, it does maximize the exposure of the brand," he said.
Target's brand got lit up in a huge fire.
The car sponsored by the discount retailer crashed into a truck holding 200 gallons of jet kerosene. The truck and fuel burst into flames but the driver of the Target car escaped unharmed as fire trucks rushed to the scene.
Whether that affects Target's brand remains to be seen, but Best Buy's Panayiotou said his company will be working to get as much marketing mileage as possible from the victory at Daytona.
"For us, it is how do you take that excitement over the win, the exposure that we have and then really engage in a conversation with it through the power of social media and the power of online," Panayiotou said. "What we're going to do right now is really put a plan in place that actively jumps into the discussion and excitement around this on Facebook and Twitter."
A NASCAR sponsorship can cost millions or even tens of millions of dollars. Prices for sponsorship have dropped in recent years, as NASCAR attendance fell off with the slumping economy. That has made sponsorships relatively more affordable. But industry watchers say prices will rise if the economy continues its rebound.
But companies say it is worth the dough.
"It's a multi-million dollar venture to be in the sport," said Pat Resch, vice president of marketing for Fastenal, a Winona-based seller of industrial and construction supplies. Resch said Fastenal's NASCAR sponsorships have connected the company with its customers — mechanics, do-it-yourselfers, maintenance workers.
"But we feel that with the media exposure and the branding and what it has done — it's taken us from a relatively under-the-radar type company to putting our brand right up there now. It's been great from a brand exposure point."
In addition to raising corporate profiles, companies say NASCAR sponsorships also help boost employee pride.
3M has been a NASCAR sponsor for a decade. This year 3M was the lead sponsor of a Ford Fusion driven by Greg Biffle.
"We had Greg out front in our car and it's real great sense of pride for our employees," said Jeff Lavers, vice president of global sales and marketing for 3M. "We had tremendous exposure of 3M on the car and the brand on network television in a very exciting race."
Lavers said NASCAR sponsorships are a great way to reach everyone from mechanics to moms. He says NASCAR's audience spans a more valuable demographic than baseball or football's.
"It reaches into different categories you would not suspect," he said. "It has very strong appeal to the Hispanic community, has very strong appeal to a key target audience of women we look to in our consumer businesses. And it really connects with our industrial base customers that are the core of our business."