As their sponsor relationship winds down after 32 years, executives look back at what made the pairing of Mars Inc. and NASCAR so special – Sports Business Journal

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As their sponsor relationship winds down after 32 years, executives look back at what made the pairing of Mars Inc. and NASCAR so special
Now in its 15th year as a major sponsor of Joe Gibbs Racing, M&M’s Chocolate executive William Clements has never had to look up terms of a contract when trying to get something done. If there was ever any sort of dispute, he said, the sides would just work through it together rather than resorting to pulling out a contract to get a technical ruling.
It was this sort of close connection that kept parent company Mars Inc. renewing its NASCAR deals over the years and fostered a relationship that has lasted for more than three decades, one that went far beyond simply a business transaction.
“Over 32 years in the sport, NASCAR became more than just a property — it became more of a family,” said Clements, who has run the NASCAR program for Mars since 2000. “When people who are running your race team are wearing your brand, it means something a little different.”
That’s also why the end of this partnership is different than most. Mars is exiting NASCAR after this season following decades in which its iconic chocolate brand served as arguably the most recognizable and kid-friendly sponsor in the sport. The corporation says the move was made because it needs to adapt to a quickly changing advertising landscape, as it focuses on more global opportunities as opposed to regional or national ones. 
The departure is a big loss for the sport not just financially — the annual cost for the company was around $25 million — but also culturally, as well-known, business-to-consumer brands have become less prevalent on the grid and lesser-known, business-to-business brands have often picked up the slack. Still, given how rare it is for a sponsorship to last so long, many executives involved with the program maintain that this is a time for celebration.
An important part of that celebration will come this weekend at Pocono Raceway, where M&M’s will title sponsor the NASCAR Cup Series race that will be held about an hour away from the company’s Hackettstown, N.J., headquarters.
The title sponsorship is meant to commemorate Mars’ longtime run in the sport, and the race is appropriately named the M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400. Mars held a contest inviting fans of M&M racing to prove their fandom, with the winners chosen to attend the race, take part in meet-and-greets and win merchandise, and one will even be the grand marshal for the race. M&M’s is also holding a Q&A in the fan midway that will feature M&M’s drivers through the years, including Kyle Busch.
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Mars first got into NASCAR in 1990 and added an official partnership with the sanctioning body starting in 2000. This allowed the company to use the NASCAR bar logo on consumer packaging and retail activations through the years.
As a global consumer-packaged goods giant, Mars has used its NASCAR sponsorships in some unique ways. For example, instead of just focusing on M&M’s, it promoted several of its different brands in NASCAR including Combos, Ethel M (Mars’ premium chocolate line), Snickers, Skittles, Twix and even Pedigree dog food.
On top of the iconic paint schemes featuring M&M’s characters, the company utilized various methods to activate its sponsorship assets.
It sampled its chocolate and candies at various locations around tracks like the fan midway, infield tunnel or by having Busch go around campgrounds on Halloween weekend with giveaways. It held a branded “glamping” experience at a couple of tracks that was essentially a weekend-long, M&M’s-filled extravaganza. It did a “Best Seats in the House” giveaway to give a handful of fans an upgraded viewing experience.
It also held an annual NASCAR day at its headquarters, where it would bring out Busch, JGR owner Joe Gibbs and others to mingle with its employees. Busch also has made several appearances at the M&M’s World store in Las Vegas. During the early stages of the pandemic, the company even held Zoom calls that served as race watch parties with key customers and associates because there was no in-person hospitality allowed at the time. Clements would send the attendees M&M’s gift packages in advance.
Busch, who delivered two Cup Series championships to Mars, said one of his favorite activations was when they created a “Days of Thunder” parody video in 2015 with his M&M’s Crispy car. Clements listed a couple of different favorite activations including all the paint schemes through the years; the glampgrounds experience; and an Ethel M 40th anniversary paint scheme that made an appearance at the Ethel M factory in Henderson, Nev.
Clements also said the decision to promote the Crispy M&M’s line in 2015 was particularly memorable because “green paint schemes were considered bad luck” before the team won that year’s Cup Series championship in the Crispy lime-green colors.
A survey of around a dozen industry executives on Mars’ impact in NASCAR suggested that what was particularly impressive about the program was its creativity and ability to get children interested in the sport just by having its brand attached to it. Michelle Byron, NASCAR’s vice president of partnership marketing, said that the sanctioning body routinely uses M&M’s as a case study when it is pitching brands about deals.
“They would do activations that have nothing to do with chocolate or NASCAR — kids putting on a Velcro suit and trying to stick to a wall — but they just brought that fun, friendly, family activity and vibe to the track,” Byron said.
For JGR President Dave Alpern, it’s not that Mars did one big thing right over the years, but rather, “It’s 100 little things that they do right — it’s excellence in detail.” For example, he noted that M&M’s graphic design team created not just countless different unique paint schemes through the years, but also a lot of engaging and highly professional social media content around the NASCAR program.
It wasn’t just executives of Mars that were deeply involved in the program. Members of the Mars family themselves — like former chairwoman Victoria Mars and her sister, Pamela Mars-Wright — were often seen at the track. Alpern recalls how often the family would come and camp out at tracks in a motor home on race weekends. Sometimes the family would even cook out for the team the night before a race.
The family was also extremely loyal over the years to Busch, who has had several controversial moments during his career. For example, the sponsor stuck with him even after Busch punched Joey Logano in the face after a race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2017. Video of the fight went viral, and Mars had to deal with the fact that Busch had started a fight in their brand’s colors.
“No matter what controversy or rough times I went through or put everyone through, they took the time and effort to get to know myself, they got to know the Gibbs family, and so they got to know me at a personal level and didn’t always judge everything from a short clip they saw on TV or an article that was out there,” Busch told Sports Business Journal. “That’s a huge reason why it was special for me for so long. We still have that kind of relationship with the family members today and something we’ll always have and means a lot to all of us.”
Busch also helped deliver the company plenty of on-air exposure. After Mars won only a handful of races in its first 15 years in the sport, Busch delivered the company eight in its first year at JGR.
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Despite all the fun activations and experiences, Mars was serious about getting a return on its investment. Clements noted that when he started with the program in 2000, he already was tracking digital activations via email campaigns or a part of the M&M’s website where fans could comment on whether they liked a paint scheme. The company also closely measured how its retail activations went and how much chocolate it was selling in the key markets where the promotions took place.
Mars was with NASCAR during its boom period in the early 2000s, its struggles in the 2010s and the more stable period it appears to be in now. The fact that Mars stuck with NASCAR and JGR during some tough times over the last decade is not lost on Clements.
“Over the course of 32 years, we’ve hit all of the goals that we had set out to do,” Clements said. “We stayed in the sport [during its struggles] because it’s a family sport, and we stayed in as it stabilized, but now as our brand is global, we need to start reaching out and doing more on a global scale.”
It will be tough for JGR employees next year to head to the track without any M&M’s logos on their merchandise, Alpern admitted. But he maintains that JGR and Mars will always be linked.
“People may not realize how embedded they really were in the sport,” Alpern said. “When we say we hate to see them go, we do from a business standpoint, but it’s more just personally being sad because they’re friends and we’re just so used to seeing them at the racetrack. But they’re part of our family and they will still be part of the family. I expect they will still be at races going forward and they’ll always be welcome.”
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