Olivia Byers is 10 years old, and she was steamed Wednesday.
She wanted to be in Indianapolis, right there on Monument Circle, in the swirl of excitement surrounding the National Hot Rod Association's Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.
How she longed just to be standing near her idol, rookie Funny Car driver Courtney Force, when the Coca-Cola Company announced it has extended its relationship with the sanctioning body through 2018. She could have said she was there the day the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series changed its name -- that beginning next year, her heroine will be competing in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.
The rush would have been surreal, seeing Force spring to life from all those pictures Olivia has dotting her bedroom walls. How heady t would have been to watch all the other nitro-class drivers milling about their display cars that lined South Meridian Street. She could have been standing by the promotional truck, chatting with the racers and sipping some ice-cold Mello Yello on the sun-baked afternoon. Folks were giving out samples of Coca-Cola's popular citrus-flavored soft drink.
But no. Her mother didn't bring her to Indianapolis. Her mother was busy.
Her mom is Sharon Byers, senior vice-president of sports and entertainment marketing partnerships at Coca-Cola. She's the one who told the crowd of media and fans alike gathered in the center of the Auto Racing Capital of the World that "Mello Yello is returning to its roots."
"She is so mad that she's not with me, because she is so passionate about the NHRA," Sharon Byers said after the ceremony in which the 2013 schedule also was unveiled. "She has Courtney pictures all over her room. We've got an up-and-coming driver in the Coca-Cola family."
Olivia's interest, she said developed "because of her mom. I brought her to an event. We started with Monster Jam, then eventually ended up with the NHRA. And she just loves it. We watch it all the time on TV. She knows all the stars of the sport."
And that same knowledge and enthusiasm are what Mrs. Byers said Coca-Cola wants to deliver to an even broader group of fans nationwide with its Mello Yello marketing partnership.
Part of the marketing/promotional plan is to activate point-of-purchase displays -- a more in-depth approach than the company took with either its Powerade or Full Throttle brands,
"You'll definitely see great activation at the track, which will be very different. But you'll also see a lot of retail promotional activity that will drive consumers to the track," Byers said.
"It's a win-win. We want to help continue to build the awareness of how amazing the NHRA is and the stars of the sport. The connection point with Mello Yello is going to be fantastic," she said. "They're incredible personalities, and that's why we wanted to get one of our sparkling brands really attached to this amazing property.
"This is like a jewel in America," Byers said. "Just introducing people to the passion that the drivers have or how multicultural it is or female drivers . . . It's Americana in every sense of the word. Honestly, it is."
Byers suggested a new type of partnership between Coca-Cola and the NHRA, including a stronger sense of mutual promotion.
"That's the explosion we want to go after," Byers said, alluding to the thrill of NHRA's sensory-overload entertainment package it has touted since 2002. "We want it to help them get bigger and bigger and bigger. That's how passionate we are. We want America to see this amazing sport that we love."
NHRA President Tom Compton expressed a reciprocal attitude in a teleconference that followed. He downplayed the fact that the new Mello Yello series sponsorship, at least for now (with no promise otherwise in the foreseeable future), will not increase purses for the drivers. But he quickly said, "The focus right now is to get the word out and create awareness for Mello Yello in the marketplace and serve our fans out there.."
He defended the current purse structure.
"Right now there's not a specific increase based on this announcement, but over time we've been able to elevate those significantly. Over time the payouts have gone up," Compton said.
He did confirm that with Mello Yello replacing Full Throttle as title sponsor, individual teams will be permitted, starting in 2013, to pursue marketing deals with non-Coca-Cola energy-drink companies.
"Yes, it does. Obviously our partner is Coke, but for race teams, race teams are the most important form of sponsorship, and we have such a great partner in Coke. They understand that, and they're willing to let competitors come in now in the energy category and be on cars. That's correct."
Byers told Competition Plus on The Circle, "It's been a great partnership for years. It's like marriage just gets better and better and better. We're going to make it even better."
She said Coca-Cola "absolutely" will have a bigger presence at the racetrack than it has had in all the previous 11 years of its association with America's most extreme motorsport. It helps that Full Throttle will continue to be the NHRA's official energy drink.
"We have two power brands. We have Mello Yello and Full Throttle. The reason we wanted to get Mello Yello back in was its amazingly rich history. We're right now thinking through some of the amazing platforms we're going to roll out in 2013. And it's going to be pretty spectacular."
While she declined to share any hints about the spectacular programs, she did say, "The new visual ID (logo) shows the power you're going to see behind the marketing platforms. The NHRA is one of those properties that [has very passionate fans]. We want to tap into that.
"We also want to tap into what Mello Yello stands for, which is basically having a good time with friends and doing things that you want," Byers said.
"We're talking to the drivers. We're talking to people like Tom Compton, trying to figure out what is the power play that Mello Yello will play. And we've got some creative ideas, as you can only imagine."
Then during the teleconference, Byers said the marketing plan for Mello Yello in the NHRA would be on the same grand scale as when the brand had its heyday in NASCAR, spotlighting Kyle Petty and others. "Yes, that would absolutely be our plan," she said.
Coca-Cola's approach in NASCAR today targets several demographically advantageous drivers. She indicated the NHRA approach hasn't reached that point yet.
"Yeah, I mean, our focus right now with Mello Yello, again, it'll be as a continuation of a very long relationship, and we've got another five years ahead of us," Byers said. "So for 2013, we're really going to focus on the power of the NHRA overall. At this point we haven't pulled in personalities like we have in NASCAR."
It might seem like an incongruous brand for an intense, high-tech, no-margin-for-error, merciless, results-oriented, you-get-one-shot-at-it, 330-mph sport. The drivers certainly aren't mellow or yellow. Byers said a literal connection between those words and drag racing isn’t the point -- the point is high-octane fun.
"If you look through Mello Yello's history, when it was in 'Days of Thunder' and when Kyle Petty drove it in the Winston Cup [Series], there's so much power there. It's not 'mellow.' It's not 'yellow.' It's about having time with friends, about high energy, high excitement," she said. "And that's what we’re going to bring to life -- a lot of high energy, a lot of excitement."
The brand had exposure in drag racing back in the 1970s, as a sponsor for awhile for Frank Oglesby's Mello Yello Mustang Funny Car.
"I didn't know that!" Byers said.
But she said she did know how quickly fans embraced Mello Yello at Wednesday's press conference.
"Fans came up, and they thanked Coke -- but we should thank them. They're the most loyal fans ever," she said. "They were all excited, and they said, 'That's makes so much sense to us' -- one after another. It was great."
Published reports earlier in the month suggested that Coca-Cola might switch it NHRA series sponsorship brand from Full Throttle to Mello Yello. However, Byers said it has been Mello Yello all the way.
"It's been Mello Yello," she said. "We've been working on it for almost a year."
Byers also said Coca-Cola's effort to refresh the brand and restore it to prominence in the cutthroat-competitive beverage market is aimed only at the NHRA, at least in the sporting world.
"We're going to focus on the NHRA with Mello Yello. The reason is it's such a strong brand. [Its distribution] is nationwide, but it's predominantly in the Southeast. But it’s such an attractive brand across the nation. That's why we want the association with the NHRA: to bring it to a national perspective and bring it back to get it back to where it was in the '70s, '80s, and' 90s. That's the plan," Byers said. "Full Throttle has had double-digit growth since the association with the NHRA. So we know the recipe works."
So it's all on the NHRA's shoulders to get this brand going again?
"Yea! And Coca-Cola's!" Byers said, exuding some of the enthusiasm 10-year-old Olivia might interject.
Going for the younger crowd would appear to be an excellent idea for the NHRA, whose median age had climbed to somewhere between middle age and retirement time. But Compton took issue with the demographics, ones that the NHRA itself has distributed for years.
"Well, actually we are getting younger. We are the youngest sport in the 18 to 49 demo in the country against any sport," Compton said, not citing his sources. "We're the third-youngest sport on an average basis, and we're the No. 1 youngest sport in the 18 to 49 demo. So it's a misnomer to think we're getting older. We're actually getting younger. And yes, it's a great fit."
Byers returned to demographics beyond age.
"One thing around the consumer base, too, that's amazing about the NHRA is it is very multicultural. It's unique that it has so many women drivers, and again, that's a very attractive piece that the NHRA, I think, brings to the table, particularly when we're looking at the connection points with Mello Yello," she said.
Byers has to look no further than her daughter to recognize what is connecting the dots.
And 10-year-old Olivia Byers definitely is smarter than an average fifth-grader -- moreover, she is a valuable resource as the NHRA and Coca-Cola move forward with the Mello Yello brand.
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