Soaring global viewership, a jet-set following and high-performance technology have quickly positioned Formula 1 as the key focus for eyewear companies investing in sports sponsorship.
Last week’s news that Safilo, which had left Formula 1 just a year ago, is back in the game by signing a contract between its brand Blenders and Oracle Red Bull Racing — this year’s top F1 team — is further proof of the sport’s buzz in eyewear.
While the category has a history of investing in F1, it seems to be picking up the pace in the aftermath of the success of the Netflix docu-series “Drive to Survive,” which chronicles behind-the-scenes drama of the racing circuit.
F1 offers companies a unique blend — a global audience and luxury positioning on par with tennis, a European provenance that sits well with many of eyewear’s Italian executives, and long-term exposure that now extends beyond F1’s racing season thanks to Netflix.
The eyewear industry sponsors half of F1’s 10-team grid. Ray-Ban is a key sponsor of Scuderia Ferrari; Marcolin’s Web Eyewear is tied up with Alfa Romeo; recent Kering Eyewear acquisition Maui Jim is signed with Haas; Oakley sponsors Aston Martin, and Safilo’s Blenders now sponsors Oracle Red Bull Racing.
“Formula 1 is a big platform in terms of visibility — you have 2.5 billion people around the world [who watch it]. F1 drivers are very vocalized about wearing eyewear, as are the teams around the drivers like engineers and technicians that are always wearing eyewear for protection. Eyewear is part of the dress code and the look, so it’s very natural,” said Matteo Blandi, Marcolin’s group marketing director.
“The audience is very, very large compared to other sports. F1 used to be more focused on specific countries but it’s becoming broader. It’s quite unique in terms of fashion — it’s a rich sport so you have the chance to showcase and be part of a kind of runway at races. If you go, you really feel that. With Ray-Ban being a fashion accessory, that’s the right place for us,” said EssilorLuxottica global chief marketing officer Francesco Liut.
All of the eyewear companies that spoke with WWD appear to have similar sponsorship clauses. They entail a team’s drivers, engineering and garage staff and key personnel wearing the sponsor’s eyewear during all official engagements and on-site at race locations. A company’s logo is often displayed on drivers’ helmets or racing suit, drivers appear in promotional imagery for the brands, and often they collaborate with brands on special, limited-edition product.
Last week Ray-Ban released a limited-edition collaboration with Scuderia Ferrari to celebrate Ferrari’s 75th anniversary race at its home track, Monza. The collection of carbon fiber Wayfarers sold out immediately upon release and created a frenzy when team drivers Carlos Sainz Jr. and Charles LeClerc made a surprise store appearance.
Ferrari, one of the top teams this year, also boasts two of the sport’s most popular drivers, which is helping further develop Ray-Ban’s F1 association. The company signed with the team in 2016.
“The beauty of these two pilots is that they are fresh and young. Ferrari is able to showcase our products on them through social media. The team and sport overall is more relatable now, it’s not about the pilots feeling inaccessible and far away,” said Liut.
“This sport now has so much traction and we are trying to work with them more and more, not only on sunglasses product, but also on optical. Vision care is more and more an important part of the Ray-Ban business and the excitement around Ferrari will help us reach a younger audience,” he added.
While Ferrari is one of F1’s biggest teams (and likely carries among the highest sponsorship fees, though Liut declined comment on that), even smaller teams are signing heavy-hitting eyewear sponsorship deals.
In 2021, Maui Jim signed on as the official eyewear partner of Haas — F1’s only U.S.-based team, known for its scrappy approach to the race circuit. The team’s principal Guenther Steiner has also emerged as one of the most popular characters in “Drive to Survive.”
“This sport is growing, and with any growing sport, the price tags match,” said Martijn van Eerde, Maui Jim’s senior director of marketing, while declining to elaborate further. “F1 is not necessarily the cheapest sport, but it’s arguably the best match with Maui Jim. It’s the ultimate marriage between athletics, performance and technology and goes hand-in-hand with the relentless pursuit of perfection. We identify with that at Maui Jim.”
Like other executives interviewed, van Eerde said Maui Jim was easily incorporated into the Haas paddock because of its functionality. “It started with the engineers — they immediately got onto our brand since Day One,” he said.
For the 2022 season, Safilo decided not to re-sign its Carrera sponsorship with the Alfa Romeo team and signed the brand with Ducati motorcycles instead. But rival Marcolin saw that as an opportunity.
Marcolin quickly swept in to sponsor the Alfa Romeo team with its brand Web Eyewear, which is undergoing a rebranding. It saw synergies with Alfa Romeo, which was also undergoing a reshuffle of its own. The team overhauled its driver roster this season and signed Mercedes-AMG veteran Valtteri Bottas, as well as rookie and F1’s first Chinese driver Zhou Guanyu.
Speaking about the team’s appeal, Blandi said: “Alfa Romeo chose a really famous driver Valteri Bottas and on the other side you have Zhou, who as the first Chinese driver also has a lot of value. The marketing opportunity was very 360 degrees. We have even done some dedicated activities with Zhou in China.”
As Web looks to rebrand and gain market share, Blandi said: “We need awareness in this moment and F1 is top. We didn’t choose any other sport because the fans and enthusiasts of F1 are not comparable to any other kind of sport — even soccer. It’s a worldwide platform with maximum visibility.”
While Safilo pulled back from F1, its absence was brief. The company last week signed a contract between its brand Blenders eyewear, which is undergoing a rebrand, and Oracle Red Bull Racing. The team is poised to offer high visibility for Blenders in markets outside the U.S., particularly as it is likely to clinch this year’s Constructor’s Championship as well as the Driver’s World Championship with team member Max Verstappen. His teammate, Sergio “Checo” Perez is also a popular driver with a strong following in his native Mexico, as well as more broadly across Latin America.
Global chief executive officer Angelo Trocchia said this was a case of finding the right team for the right brand. For Carrera, “F1 was not the right territory and it was better to invest the money at Ducati. Blenders is a different brand — it’s younger and more sporty. It was perfect positioning to go alongside Red Bull,” he said.
The partnership has already kicked off and will expand next season with limited-edition product runs. “This is the best combination to have in this moment,” said Trocchia. “Instagram is already packed with the Red Bull team wearing Blenders. It’s perfect. We will be on the helmet this year and by March 2023 we will have a specific collection. It’s going to be an amazing boost.”
While visibility appears to be the key to F1’s hold on eyewear, it does have its limits. As part of their contracts, companies give Netflix and teams complete permission to use their logo in footage and promotional imagery, without blurring the logo out.
But that doesn’t mean the brands are guaranteed anything in the show. “If you look at the pitch decks [from teams], Netflix is not in there. No one can guarantee you time in the show or what will be aired,” van Eerde said. “It’s about finding the right frequencies and aligning with the right team that offers the most value to you.”