Drive To Survive
How Formula 1 turned to content to drive massive growth
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Storytelling is a massive competitive advantage as tech and even capital become commoditized. Here, we’ll explore the tactics used by the best storytellers in the world to grow their businesses.
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In recent memory, no content series has been more influential, both on culture and bottom line, than Formula 1’s Drive to Survive Netflix docuseries.
To understand the impact of DTS, let's work backward from Formula 1's acquisition by Liberty Media in late 2016 at a valuation of ~$8 billion.
Worldwide viewership decreased from 500 million in 2012 to 390 million in 2016 (22% decrease)
A sale of F1 equity in 2012 valued the series at over $9 billion, meaning the series lost 11% of its value from 2012 to 2016 while other sports leagues boomed.
We could dig into more numbers, but F1's former CEO summed up the series' issues perfectly with this statement:
When Liberty Media acquired Formula 1 in late 2016, its first order of business became 'addressing the US issue.' To do this, it planned to position F1 as a content company.
Expanded focus on social channels
Launched Formula 1 esports in 2017
Signed deal with Netflix for a docuseries in 2018
The Netflix deal got little attention and many in F1 thought it was dumb. In fact, the two biggest teams at the time (Mercedes and Ferrari) refused to participate.
I think this was a blessing in disguise.
It forced Drive To Survive to introduce viewers to all 10 teams and 20 drivers, instead of just the ones at the top.
What Drive To Survive did so damn well: Box To Box Films, the production company behind DTS, understands conflict and storytelling better than anyone. They took a traditional sport where all of the action takes place in the car with a helmet on and flipped that on its head.
DTS features less than 20% of track time, meaning more than 80% is off the track -- actual looks into the lives of the drivers both within the team and, occasionally, at home.
Takeaway #1: The cliché "people follow people" has some truth to it, and the brands that incorporate this will outperform.
Another unique aspect of Formula 1 is the two championships setup: one for the best individual driver and one for the best team.
Given that an F1 team is made up of two drivers, your biggest rival becomes your teammate.
Drive To Survive hones in on this conflict during each season:
Verstappen / Ricciardo
Hamilton / Bottas
Norris / Ricciardo
Only one other driver has the EXACT SAME car as you – your teammate. If someone else beats you, you have an excuse… But if your teammate beats you, he was simply better than you.
What other sport has this dynamic? I can't think of any.
As a viewer, it makes for incredible TV.
Takeaway #2: Lean into what makes yourself, your business, and your content unique.
The criticism: Max Verstappen, the reigning world champ, recently accused DTS of ‘dramatizing’ F1. He’s not wrong.
It’s the same tactic used by Hard Knocks and the Ultimate Fighter.
Identify season-long storylines
Magnify the drama
The results are staggering. Since Drive To Survive launched in 2019, F1 has seen:
40% increase to US viewership
7 of the 10 most-watched races ever
The most-attended race ever – 400,000 at the US Grand Prix in Austin
And F1’s tripling down on the US, starting with the Miami Grand Prix in 2022 and the Las Vegas Grand Prix in 2023.
Takeaway #3: Double down on what works.
Drive To Survive's success has translated directly to dollars. Formula 1’s valuation has gone from $8B to $13B in just 3 years (63% increase). Plus, teams are seeing an inflow of cash from the biggest brands in the world.
And it's not just success in the US market or with men:
It's crazy to think just how much the Netflix effect is growing F1 globally, not only in the US.
The @ausgrandprix sold out in record time. And according to race organizers, 40% of this year’s tickets have been sold to *women* compared with 25 percent in years past.
— Vincenzo Landino (@vincenzolandino)
Mar 29, 2022
Another aspect to appreciate here is timing: Season 4 of Drive To Survive was released two weeks before the first race of the 2022 season, reaching the top spot on Netflix the days leading up to the race.
That timing, in part, led to the Bahrain Grand Prix's record 1.35 million US viewers and 70.3 million globally. To put that in context, that's ~70% of the Super Bowl's viewership for the first of 23 total races.
But what shocked me?
Netflix actually pays Formula 1 a licensing fee for Drive To Survive. Essentially, F1 gets paid to air one of the best commercials ever.
A message from... Me!
The interest in this tweet blew me away...
One way to become a better storyteller:
Take your two favorite authors. I recommend one non-fiction and one fiction.
Copy, word for word, their best work. Do it by hand.
I chose Paul Kalanithi and Neil Gaiman.
It’s the single exercise that improved my writing the most.
— Nathan Baugh 🗺️ (@nathanbaugh27)
Jan 5, 2023
In my experience, there are two ways to get good at storytelling:
Study the greats (what this newsletter is for)
Practice, practice, practice
I do a lot of practice through StoryWork.
And so many of you liked, commented, and sent me DMs about the practice I decided to turn it into a guided course for you.
Check it out:
up your game
A few resources I found helpful this week, which you may too:
Related: Trung Phan's incredible thread on why Red Bull, known as an energy drink company, owns an F1 team.
Not related at all: On Writing by Stephen King is the best resource to become a better writer I've ever found.
Do you think the upcoming Netflix docuseries will be as successful as Drive To Survive? Hit me with all the hot takes.