Bobby Labonte gets rebranded: will fans follow?

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Bobby Labonte made me a NASCAR fan a few years ago. After turning his expensive race car into a pile of scrap metal, he told an interviewer that he just screwed up and didn’t drive the car very well. I liked that kind of honesty in a world of sponsor-laden gearhead speak by most of the stars of NASCAR.

For the past 11 years, he drove the green number 19 Interstate Batteries car for Joe Gibbs Racing. He was one of the top 10 or so stars of the sport, and won a championship in 2000, so his gear was everywhere. I have a small collection of 1:24 scale models of his car, micro models and foil wrapped chocolate cars on my desk at work.

Now, he’s changing teams, he’s changing numbers and he’s changing color schemes which will be a true test of his star power. As Bobby changes, I wonder if his fans will goes with him.

NASCAR does a great job of managing its brand and the brands of its drivers. Drivers set unmatched standards for connecting with their fans, and the fans show their love by buying a lot of gear with their favorite driver’s number and colors. Frankly, I don’t have any doubt that the fans will follow the driver, but what will happen to their $100 leather jacket, the $30 football jersey or the $99 stained-glass table lamp?

The green and red color scheme of the number 18 was easy to spot in most races because it was the only green car on the track. Based on the amount of no. 18 gear that was for sale compared to other stars, I’m thinking the green and red color combination might have kept sales down even after he won the championship.

I’m thinking the new baby blue and yellow scheme of the no. 43 is not going to do a lot better. Early results are in on a fan poll on Bobby’s official website, and the fans don’t like it either. When last I looked, 94 percent voted for “I hate it.” Ouch. There goes the stained-glass lamp sales.

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