According to National Guard spokesman Rick Breitenfeldt, such trackside marketing, as well as other campaigns tied to Earnhardt and his No. 88 Chevy, are “the bread and butter” of its NASCAR sponsorship.
“We love having our name on the side of Dale’s car, but it’s the things that go with it that really are of most value to us,” Breitenfeldt said.
That includes the seven appearances Earnhardt made on behalf of the Guard at high schools this past year. It includes the three No. 88 “show cars” that the Guard takes to recruiting events in states that teem with NASCAR fans, but don’t host a NASCAR race. And it includes the NASCAR merchandise sold last year branded with Earnhardt Jr.’s likeness and the National Guard logo, exposure Breitenfeldt believes is incalculable.
The Army, by contrast, has abandoned NASCAR, but is continuing its 10-year sponsorship of the NHRA’s Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher, partly because drag racing’s audience skews a bit younger than NASCAR’s. The Army also will continue sponsoring high school football’s All-American Bowl. And it’s investing in events such as robotics competitions and groups with a diverse recruiting pool, such as the National Society of Black Engineers and the League of United Latin American Citizens.
With its marketing and advertising budget cut by more than half in the last five years, from $423 million in 2008 to roughly $190 million this year, the Army is shifting away from traditional TV ads and investing more in social media.
Enlisting in the military is a far more complex decision than the sort consumers make daily — deciding between Budweiser or Miller, for example, or lunch at Subway versus McDonald’s. In those cases, logos on a racecar circling a track 200 times might be persuasive. Enlisting in the Army or Air Force involves an extended conversation with prospective recruits and the adults who influence them.
“We can draw conclusions about the number of leads that are produced by one of the races, but the conversion rate to an enlistment is a lot more complicated than just showing up at a race,” said John Myers, director of marketing for the U.S. Army Marketing and Research Group. “It is a journey — an information journey and a decision journey that the parents and the prospects engage in, starting with the first opportunity to learn about the Army.
“If anybody said, ‘We can prove that we had X-number of contracts that came from our sponsorship,’ it might be a little bit of a stretch.”