With now 6 seasons under their belt, the Drive To Survive producers have nailed the format. What does this mean from a branded content point of view?

Drive To Survive is an original documentary series created by Netflix that follows the drivers, team owners and other key figures of the Formula One World Championship. Each season they take viewers behind the scenes to tell the stories of these drivers and their struggles on and off the track. The series gives fans a unique look at what it takes to compete in one of the most competitive sports in the world.

Table of contents of this article:

How it all started

When the first season of Drive To Survive debuted, it was met with mixed reactions from the Formula One community. Some F1 insiders dismissed the series as being too sensational and not giving a true representation of what the sport was about. Others praised the show for its authentic approach to storytelling and for showcasing a side of the sport that had never been seen before.

Nevertheless, it quickly became a hit among fans who love to follow their favourite drivers on and off track. The success of Drive To Survive has made it one of Netflix’s most successful original series and has also opened up new opportunities for branded content within F1. As more brands become aware of the potential reach that this series offers, they are beginning to invest in creating custom content around each driver’s story. This allows them to tap into a highly engaged audience while also providing an opportunity to portray their brand in a positive light.

But after that many seasons, one thing has clearly emerged: people who had never watched a single F1 race are now hooked on the characters that make the starting grid. From the 20 drivers to the team principals, storytelling plays a great role in making what was once a very closed community a now very open group of people whose passions and emotions are laid bare on screen.

In a way, some are saying that the series has “remade” Formula 1 racing.

And these are all reasons why this series is one of the recent great examples of brand storytelling.

Is Drive to Survive (DTS) branded content?

Yes, Drive to Survive is considered branded content.

Why is it branded content? Because it ticks all the boxes of proper content strategy:

  1. It has a clear objective: reach new audiences and drive awareness of the F1 brand.
  2. It has a defined audience it targets: DTS builds its narrative for non-die-hard F1 fans.
  3. It has a clear format, on the right platform: Making DTS available on Netflix was the right move, a win-win for both F1 (Netflix’s global reach was key) and Netflix (awareness about the series actually drives subscriptions, although we would never really know how many).
  4. It has proven ways of working: After multiple seasons, production approach and methods are now clear and all stakeholders know what to expect from the production crews.
  5. It brings actual results: DTS has brought unprecedented awareness about F1 in the United States (which was an important goal of Liberty Media when it bought rights in 2017).

As you can see, the series has clear bases in content marketing strategy.

How is Drive to Survive built?

Although some might argue that Season 5 looked like just a long press release, other seasons have gone beyond the racing action that you can already see every weekend on your favourite sports channel:

  • The show primarily highlights certain narrative threads, like tensions between teammates, rivalries between teams and individuals, and the fluctuating nature of seats for upcoming seasons. These storylines create an engaging series of narrative arcs that draw in viewers. The series is not a simple storyline of the actual racing season.
  • One of the reasons for the show’s success was its ability to humanize the people and offer viewers insights into their backgrounds, goals, failures, and leisure activities. This was significant as in sports it is easy to overlook that athletes have emotions similar to others outside of sport. Furthermore, Formula One has a reputation of being highly technical and detached from the drivers; something which the show was successful at countering.
  • The series provided coverage of multiple perspectives by narrating stories of various individuals and teams in the sport, as well as those striving to maintain ranking or avoid relegation. Additionally, it included both race content and off-track footage to allow for a comprehensive view of the situations surrounding the races.

All in all, the series is very different from what we have had access to from the F1 World Championship for decades.

What are the challenges for a series like Drive to Survive?

One of the main challenges for a series like Drive to Survive is maintaining audience engagement and interest over multiple seasons. As the show has gone on, viewers may become desensitized to the drama and excitement that the series has to offer.

Additionally, it can be difficult to maintain a consistent narrative arc across multiple seasons, as each season focuses on different drivers and storylines. It is a good thing we can end up getting to know drivers (and their personalities) over multiple seasons.

Furthermore, Drive To Survive also faces the challenge of balancing its focus between showcasing the sport itself and providing an engaging story for viewers. This has drawn criticism in the past and is where the production team must strike the right balance.

Finally, one of the biggest challenges is finding ways to make sure that each season offers something new and exciting in order to keep viewers coming back for more. Some might argue that F1 is fast cars running in circles, but the series has shown that it is much more than that.

What are the results the series has brought?

Tanay Jaipura outlined, following Season 4 of the series, multiple key takeaways and impacts DTS has had on the sport:

  • Helped increase viewership of F-1 races in the US: Per ESPN, average viewership is up 70% over the last 3 years at 928,000 so far in 2021 from about 547,000 in 2018
  • Helped drive ticket sales in the US: Since the first season came out, the Austin Grand Prix sold 15% more tickets. In addition, a second US race (in Miami) has been added to the circuit.
  • Helped bring in younger viewers: Formula one has been attracting much younger audiences, with the 16 to 35 age bracket drove 77% of Formula One’s audience growth in 2020. Per Nielsen, a large part of that is thanks to the Netflix series.
  • Helped bring in more sponsors from the US: Increasing US interest has had the downstream effect of more US sponsorship dollars flowing into the sport, with companies such as Google, Coca-Cola, Oracle and others upping their sponsorship.

The future

Through all this, the series has paved the way for the format to be applied to other sports.

Following the lead of Formula 1 and Liberty Media, the PGA, WTA and ATP are creating docuseries for Netflix.

Amazon had released the All or Nothing series featuring many NFL teams as well as Manchester City, Juventus and the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby Union before Drive to Survive, but nothing compared to the public’s interest towards this F1 documentary series which provided an in-depth look into the world of Formula One racing.

Now, will “Break Point” (the tennis version of DTS also on Netflix) work as well as what worked for F1? This remains to be established. But the behind-the-scene format has given rise and fame to audience interest and more is to be expected in the near future.

Branded entertainment is not new, but it has enjoyed a new renaissance in the past few years. And DTS is clearly part of this with its strong brand storytelling.

8 lessons for content marketing leaders and Chief Content Officers

How could the learnings of Drive to Survive be applied to B2B and B2C brands and organizations that do not have athletes giving all they have to win championships? We outline 8 key lessons that content leaders can bring to their teams and content programs:

  1. Authentic Storytelling is Key: Authentic storytelling captivates and engages audiences by delving into personal journeys and challenges. This approach not only deepens connection and understanding but also broadens the appeal of content by presenting relatable, humanized narratives that resonate across diverse demographics.
  2. Strategic Partnerships Enhance Reach: Collaborating with prominent platforms like Netflix can significantly extend a brand’s reach, introducing products, services, or experiences to a global audience that may have been previously unaware or unengaged, thus transforming market penetration and audience perceptions.
  3. Content Diversification Attracts New Fans: Expanding content variety to cater to a wide range of interests enables brands to connect with a broader audience. By incorporating different content types, such as docuseries, brands can appeal to both dedicated followers and those new to the subject, fostering a more inclusive and expansive community.
  4. Behind-the-Scenes Access Drives Interest: Offering an exclusive glimpse into areas typically hidden from public view can rekindle interest in familiar subjects, making them feel new and exciting again. This approach adds depth to the audience’s understanding and appreciation, invigorating traditional content with fresh allure.
  5. Impact on Advertising and Sponsorship: Quality content that garners significant attention can dramatically increase visibility, leading to enhanced advertising and sponsorship opportunities. This visibility not only boosts immediate revenue but also strengthens brand presence in the market.
  6. Navigating Commercial Success with Authenticity: Finding the right balance between commercial objectives and maintaining authenticity is crucial. This equilibrium ensures that while new audiences are attracted, the core values and essence that initially drew loyal fans are preserved, fostering sustainable engagement.
  7. Innovative Content Formats are Crucial: Standing out in a saturated market demands innovative content strategies. Experimentation with different storytelling methods and formats is essential to capture and hold audience attention, driving engagement and differentiating your brand from competitors.
  8. The Role of Live Content in Streaming: Incorporating live content into streaming services is an evolving trend that extends beyond sports, touching various live event genres. Successfully adapting this trend involves understanding viewer preferences for immediacy and engagement, ensuring that the live streaming experience is both accessible and captivating for a broad audience spectrum.