By  on January 18, 2002

NEW YORK -- Drakkar Noir is an 18-year-old men's fragrance that has been around the track more times than some marketing executives can recall. Yet despite all the miles on its odometer, the Guy Laroche brand has just been given a tune-up and some high octane fuel by parent L'Oreal that has put it in the passing lane.

In an effort to bolster the brand's image, The European Designer Fragrance Division of L'Oreal USA has added a highly offbeat new wrinkle to the celebrity spokesperson game by sponsoring one of the most charismatic young stock car drivers on the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR, circuit, the 27-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr.

His late father, Dale Sr., who is credited with building stock car racing into a national sport worthy of serious media attention, was killed in a race a year ago in Daytona Beach, Fla. His son is an accomplished rising superstar on his own, having finished in eighth place last year, his second year on the circuit, in Winston Cup racing.

So why is a French-based beauty giant interested in stock car racing?

"It's the biggest spectator sport; it's America's sport," said Jack Wiswall, president of the Designer Fragrances at L'Oreal USA.

Noting that NBC and Fox have signed a six-year TV deal to broadcast the races, Wiswall asserted that an average of 250,000 people watch a race and he further ticked off statistics, saying that there are 75 million NASCAR fans in the U.S., 40 percent of them women.

"This is a great classic," Wiswall said of Drakkar. "And there's a whole new generation that doesn't know about this fragrance. It will bring a whole new life to this brand."

Indeed, it certainly seems to have staying power. Despite a lack of advertising support for at least seven years and occasional complaints from retailers about a leakage of product into the gray market, Drakkar has remained in the top 15 of men's brands, according to Wiswall.

He refused to break out sales or advertising budgets, but industry sources estimate that Drakkar Noir still does a retail volume in excess of $50 million in the U.S. in 2,200 doors.Sources estimate that the cost of an associate sponsorship -- like this one that allows L'Oreal to put the Drakkar name on Earnhardt's car and uniform and use his photo in ads -- runs about $1.5 million a year. In addition, the company reportedly will spend in excess of $4 million on print advertising for the spring, including 18 million scented strips and 20 million blow-ins.

The campaign will break Feb. 15 in USA Today and continue in Sports Illustrated, GQ, Maxim, People, Road & Track and Men's Health. Drakkar also will be advertised in the NASCAR race program. "It will be the first luxury product advertised [there]," Wiswall asserted.

Thayer Lavielle, director of marketing for the European Designer Fragrance Division, added that selected women's magazines may also be added to the list. A TV campaign may also be done in the future, depending on results from the spring season.

Industry sources indicate that the company is shooting for a 35 percent sales increase for 2002.

An ambitious promotion is being planned for March. L'Oreal will borrow 300 to 400 cars -- the same model of Chevrolet Monte Carlo that Earnhardt drives -- and place them either in malls or on department store selling floors around the country. Also, 16 cars will be raffled off in sweepstakes staged by department stores around the country, particularly the Southeast.

Another major focal point of the promotion will be a gift-with-purchase giveaway. For a $39.50 purchase, a customer will get a replica of Earnhardt's car. This is similar to the models that are sold at the track for $50 to $80 each. According to Lavielle, about 60 percent of NASCAR's 75 million fans have bought collectible replicas.

Racing is not only a large spectacle but it's a big business. At each race, caravans of 18-wheel trucks are grouped together in mini-malls selling NASCAR merchandise, ranging from trinkets to $400 leather racing jackets. Sales add up to $1.3 billion a year.

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