What actually is INDYCAR’s product?

by Tony Johns

Let’s play semantics and metaphors, shall we?

Ask an IndyCar fan to define the sport’s product. Most likely, they will say, “Close racing. Speed. A deep field. Anyone can win. The Indy 500!”

Well, one out of five ain’t bad. Otherwise, they’re wrong.

Four out of the five things they mentioned are outcomes, not a product. An outcome is the product of a product, much like the furious diarrhea that results from eating too many Taco Bell Doritos Locos.

This is an important semantic difference, and it’s one that many in the IndyCar community fail to recognize.

There has been a lot of emphasis lately in promoting the outcomes of INDYCAR instead of its actual product. Protecting the outcomes, in fact, is so important to the inner circle that the product may end up suffering as a result.

The problem is that, in the end, a business does not sell outcomes, it sells products. Otherwise, everyone would only buy the generic items off a supermarket shelf, because who would care about presentation and quality? Arguably, that might actually be the best move anyway – people would save a bunch of money, right? – but that realistically will never happen.

What, then, is INDYCAR’s product? The easy answer would be the Indianapolis 500, but that is not a complete answer. And if it is the complete answer, then INDYCAR has serious problems, because the greatest VCR player ever made is still obsolete, no matter how clear the picture and sound it delivers.

No, INDYCAR’s product has to be more than just Indy, because Indy is heavily weighted by tradition, which by definition resists change and dynamism. A successful product utilizes tradition as a marketing tool, not its raison d’être.

Is INDYCAR’s product the drivers, as some have suggested? Again, no. Drivers are human beings and are therefore an exhaustible and impermanent resource. Drivers are subject to the exigencies of budgets, the vagaries of health, and (as clearly evidenced by Panther Racing’s John Barnes) the whims of personality.

The product is right there in the sport’s name – the IndyCar. Everything has to orbit around that. Indianapolis is not Indianapolis without an IndyCar – NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 has shown us that. As for the drivers, they come and go too easily to be foundational blocks (even Indy 500 champ Tony Kanaan recently teetered on the brink of unemployment, remember?). The IndyCar itself is, if you will pardon the pun, the engine that drives the sport.

Why is it so important to nitpick on this? Because, going back to our previous example, people still buy millions of dollars’ worth of Taco Bell products, even though they are proven to feature “meat-like” filling and result in hours spent on local toilets in gastrointestinal agony. The outcome is less important than the product.

Now for the metaphor.

Back in 1996, the IndyCar community split into two halves. Think of the sport as Coca-Cola. One side took the taste, the other took the carbonation. The side that took the taste said that nobody cared if the cola was fizzy, just that it tasted good. The other said that, in the end, people were clamoring for bubbles and that taste was an unneeded expense.

Both sides drew their share of advocates from the fan ranks, but over time, the general public got tired of drinking either a flat cola or overhyped soda water. Thus, they switched from Coke to Pepsi while the two “new Coke” brands kept fighting over which product should be on the shelf.

Eventually, of course, both sides discovered the error of their ways. The taste contingent toyed with the idea of changing the flavor, but when they found that absolutely nobody appeared to like it, they were stuck. Meanwhile, the bland, tasteless carbonation crew was surviving on the niche consumers who thought soda water was the greatest thing ever. Clearly, though, it wasn’t enough to pay the bills.

So the sides came back together. They branded the product as Coke Classic and hoped that people would remember and love the taste. But it was a Pepsi world by then, and no amount of marketing by the Coke people to say, “Our product will make you less thirsty” changed the fact that people were accustomed to a different taste… or that stores had ceded the shelf space that Coke once enjoyed.

We could continue with the metaphor (for instance, illustrating how consumers are moving away from cola products to other drinks) but I think you get the point without belaboring it further.

The upshot is that INDYCAR’s product is an anachronism. That its outcome is more appealing than it has been in decades does not change consumers’ buying habits in any appreciable manner – at least, not if ratings and attendance figures are indicators.

The only way to change this is to revolutionize the product. Make it into something consumers want to buy – not only that, but create a demand that is larger than the supply. Otherwise, the product is simply taking up shelf space, and no store is going to keep stocking it for long if sales lag… no matter how happy the outcome makes those few who do purchase it.