If there’s one thing most people know about Ron Dennis, it’s how much of a perfectionist he is about.. well everything really. Here is a man who has built McLaren up to become the most respected of all race teams, second only to Ferrari in some people’s eyes.

So when I first watched their new animation series – Tooned, produced together with the creative wizards at Framestore, I was curious to find out about McLaren’s goals for the project and how it would push the boundaries for branded content in motorsport.

Motorsport, as we all know, is the world’s most costly sport, and most F1 teams have moved beyond the bounds of sponsorship and corporate hospitality to other means of generating revenue. Williams has its Advanced Engineering and Hybrid Power divisions, who have been developing their KERS technology for road cars in partnership with Porsche and Jaguar.

Caterham will soon launch its Composites business, providing advanced lightweight engineering services to clients in aerospace, automotive, marine and motorsport sectors.

Ferrari has long possessed a successful automotive and merchandising business which supports their racing, and McLaren has several businesses in Applied Technologies (medicine, biomechanics and precision sports), Electronic Systems and even a bespoke catering and hospitality service called Absolute Taste.

Then of course McLaren Automotive is now making a serious dent in Ferrari’s road car business with the 12C & 12C Spider.

So it may come as a surprise to learn that McLaren feels the need to make their brand more ‘accessible’, to help it appeal to a wider audience whilst also building greater brand loyalty.

McLaren F1 already has a highly developed social media presence, with @TheFifthDriver (222,530 Followers), @LewisHamilton (987,957 Followers) and @JensonButton (1,085,879 Followers) all regularly engaging with fans and doing a pretty decent job of making the brand accessible.

Ron Dennis, Executive Chairman – McLaren Group, said: “McLaren has always aimed to be pioneering in everything it does. McLaren Animation’s remit and objectives are therefore consistent with, and complementary to, the ethos of continuous innovation on which the McLaren Group has been built. We were pleased to find a world class partner in Framestore to bring our vision to life”

So I reached out to John Allert, Group Brand Director of McLaren Marketing, a few months ago to find out what they were trying to achieve.


Tooned is a 12-part animation series featuring Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Alexander Armstrong. Each episode builds on Button and Hamilton’s camaraderie and insatiable urge to race each other, with ever more comical adventures that test the patience of Armstrong’s character, ‘Professor M’, as he introduces the dynamic duo to the new developments he and his team have ‘carefully’ designed.

“Tooned, offers a unique platform for McLaren and its partners to achieve exposure to a wider audience, as well as to integrate brand messaging in a format of a high-octane sport not known for an ability to laugh at itself,” said Allert.

“There has also been a gradual shift in the power and influence of children over family viewing habits – not only in terms of what they watch, but also in terms of how they watch it, on PCs and smartphones as well as televisions.”

“Into that gap we’ve decided to launch a sophisticated CGI-animated series that follow a tradition established by films such as ‘Toy Story’ and ‘Wall-E’: story-telling that is thematically big in scope and can be enjoyed on a number of levels, appealing to kids and parents alike.”

The content is being developed in a way that can involve McLaren’s sponsoring-partners by providing an additional platform on which to promote their branding and McLaren partnership. McLaren Animation are even considering a Tooned movie for the cinema, with a full merchandising and branding programme in the vein of Harry Potter and the seemingly endless line of Marvel superhero films.

For the time being, each three-minute episode is being broadcast in the UK on the SKY Sports F1 channel at around 11:45am before each race, but if you’re outside the UK or watching F1 on the BBC then you’re not able to see it, unless via the pirated copies available on YouTube.

Allert, who was formerly Chief Executive of Interbrand UK, joined McLaren in 2007 to develop the group’s branding and partnership programmes. He’s a well-known heavyweight in the branding world, but I’m less familiar with his experience in outreach and community engagement.

When we were last in contact, I raised questions over McLaren’s strategy for Tooned, how they intended to integrate TV into the online experience and whether they had anything interesting planned on the technology front – perhaps using augmented reality to connect fans at race events with those around the world in an interactive gameplay with the animated Jenson and Lewis characters.

Allert confirmed that their plans were well developed, so during the last few months I had expected to see the campaign shift up a gear, long before this weekend’s fourth episode.

How is the series doing?

Before I start, let me just say that the cartoons themselves are brilliant – they’re witty, mischievous and deliver an 11 out of 10 in making the McLaren brand feel accessible.

Simon Whalley, Chris Waitt, Henry Trotter and the creative team at Framestore have delivered a product that has tremendous potential to achieve all the project’s aims, and more.

But I’m curious as to why we’re a third of the way through the series without any evidence of a social or online strategy, far less anything more leading-edge such as augmented reality or companion viewing on a second screen.

Looking at the brand’s exposure, purely from a TV perspective, the vast majority of the Formula One audience here in the UK are missing out on McLaren’s efforts to widen its reach.

Race BBC (million viewers) Sky Sports F1 (million viewers)


































Audience data: provided by BARB.

As you can see from the table above, BBC’s coverage has yielded an average of 3.07 million viewers per episode, compared to 0.69 million watching on Sky Sports F1, so the current deal with Sky means that McLaren are missing out on 77% of the available UK F1 audience.

The TV figures wouldn’t seem so bad if perhaps McLaren’s online strategy was paying off, however there is no online strategy (that I can see). A few enterprising fans have uploaded the episodes to YouTube resulting in Episode 1 (Wheel Nuts) achieving 437,000 views, Episode 2 (Slicks) – 24,900 views and Episode 3 (Track To The Future) – 46,400 views.

We reached out to John Allert at McLaren for comment, but have yet to receive a response.

You only get one chance to make a first impression and with online audiences, this is further exacerbated by an inherently low threshold of boredom – even for content as well made as Tooned. Novelty is a precious commodity and my concern is that McLaren may have squandered this, unless their social outreach really blows us away when it eventually comes.

But one of the foremost principles of social media is to foster audience discovery, sharing and self-actualisation (boosting people’s self-esteem and status in their own social circles).

Branded content needs to be available, shareable and provided in such a way that leaves an opening for the brand to play an active part in the engagement with that content by the audience.

Instead the content is not readily available to those who may have missed its original broadcast on Sky Sports F1 channel. Videos posted by users on YouTube are not under McLaren’s control and therefore cannot be measured and optimised.

And of course, if people do feel a greater affinity towards McLaren as a consequence of the toons, there’s no clear channel in which they should express that sentiment – thus market intelligence is being lost and delivering a joined-up multi-channel experience to McLaren’s fans becomes nigh on impossible.

McLaren’s new animated series deserves to do well, I just hope it can move beyond its creative beginnings and start engaging with the audience McLaren are hoping to reach.

Images: Framestore.


Written By

Steve Davies

Steve is an investor, private equity advisor and former Partner at KPMG, PwC and Bain.   Most importantly he's a life-long car enthusiast, mountain biker and active sports enthusiast. He designs and builds technology platforms and is the architect behind Transmission.

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