Harlequin Romances and NASCAR Set Women Fans' Hearts Racing
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Harlequin Romances and NASCAR Set Women Fans' Hearts Racing

In 2006, Harlequin Enterprises, best known as a publisher of romance novels, entered into a first of its kind licensing agreement with NASCAR, one of the most popular and fastest-growing sports in the United States, but one with a decidedly macho image.

Paul Holmes

In 2006, Harlequin Enterprises, best known as a publisher of romance novels, entered into a first of its kind licensing agreement with NASCAR, one of the most popular and fastest-growing sports in the United States, but one with a decidedly macho image. Together, the two brands plan to publish 24 NASCAR-themed romance novels over the next two years. The program debuted with the release of In the Groove, authored by Pamela Britton, during Speedweek at the Daytona 500.

Harlequin’s innovative partnership with NASCAR was designed to generate interest from media and consumers while reestablishing the brand’s status as a leader and innovator in women’s fiction.  The women’s fiction category has experienced a decline in popularity over the last five years as other media have grown in popularity. As a result, major publishing houses such as Harlequin are locked in a fight for market share. 

Top marketing executives at Harlequin believe product innovation is the key to winning the battle and saw a ground-breaking partnership with NASCAR as targeted and strategic. International public relations firm Burson-Marsteller was asked to build brand buzz around the partnership, support the company’s Get Your Heart Racing website and create sustainable media interest for the duration of the launch and post-launch periods.

The team’s objectives were to secure positive coverage in national and regional print, TV, radio and online media that included an image of the book cover or a call to action for the program’s website; create the Valentine’s Day Fan Forum event during Speedweek to reach media and consumers and deliver key messages; raise media awareness of Harlequin’s product offerings and approach women through unique and unexpected avenues; leverage incoming organic media opportunities strategically so that all media received customized pitch angles and coverage was geographically diversified; and manage NASCAR’s media efforts to bring Harlequin to the forefront of all NASCAR partner-related activities.

B-M counseled Harlequin from the beginning on the viability of the partnership and how to make it relevant to media. This included a deep dive into the commonalities of the two brands. Both Harlequin and NASCAR have a long history as fan-based brands with incredibly loyal and enthusiastic audiences.
Harlequin, for example, sells four books every second; 40 percent of paperback fiction readers read romance and 78 percent of female readers (age 15 or over) recognize the Harlequin brand. Meanwhile, 40 percent of NASCAR fans are readers, female NASCAR fans are more likely to enjoy reading books than non-fans, and 26 percent more likely to read romance novels.

B-M’s media relations plan appealed to top-level, national lifestyle outlets first and then trickled down to regional and local print and broadcast media. It was structured to give Harlequin ownership of the news angle and introduce individual customized concepts to influential outlets, not simply compliment existing or saturated trends or story ideas. 

Likewise, the firm’s consumer outreach effort targeted both the audience onsite at Speedweek as well as fans and readers at home, across the country. Executed through interactive events and sweepstakes, the consumer relations strategy was designed to make the story tangible and invite the consumer to become involved in the Harlequin brand at touch points beyond media alone.

Together Harlequin and B-M prepared for the Get Your Heart Racing program by identifying specific platforms to support the media relations and consumer events strategies. The team not only handled author training, key message development, event organization and media prioritization prior to the first stages of execution; it also took advantage of existing relationships to bring valuable third parties on board including celebrity driver Carl Edwards, sponsored by Office Depot, a B-M client.

Burson-Marsteller employed a series of tactics to launch the Harlequin/NASCAR partnership. The firm drew on its previous event planning expertise to create the Valentine’s Day Fan Forum during Speedweek and served as the key liaison in partnership coordination with all event participants. The firm managed all elements of both The Valentine’s Day Fan Forum at Daytona USA and the Win a Dinner with Carl Edwards sweepstakes. The team also supported individual on-site media opportunities and author signings throughout the campaign.

The team’s media relations efforts were designed to target female NASCAR fans beyond the motor sports press. Burson-Marsteller developed several newsworthy angles to generate interest among lifestyle and business media both for print and broadcast outlets. The team organized author and celebrity interviews, personality profiles, book reviews, business news stories and lifestyle trend stories, all of which identified Harlequin as a category leader in trend stories focused on NASCAR’s new courtship of female fans as well as emphasizing the brand’s commitment to innovation in the publishing industry.

Because of Burson-Marsteller’s established relationships, Harlequin gained an advantage in negotiating the exclusive use of racing imagery and information. The team’s previous experience with NASCAR vendors helped it serve as a liaison between all parties throughout the campaign and B-M was able to involve the most appropriate individual partner for each specific opportunity.

Media were intrigued and found the pairing of a publishing company and leading spectator sport newsworthy. By the end of the year, the campaign had generated over 369 media placements and more than 284 million consumer impressions. There were feature stories in USA Today, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Orlando Sentinel, Entertainment Weekly and NASCAR Scene. The campaign also generated major network coverage on the ABC World News with Charles Gibson, The Today Show, Nightline and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno as well as stories on numerous local news affiliates across the country.

Furthermore, both the overall Harlequin/NASCAR relationship and book launch reached the brand’s traditional audience through several unconventional media sources including a number of online blogs and community discussion boards.

And almost half the coverage included either an image of the book or a mention of the website.

Meanwhile, In the Groove sold twice as many copies as the author’s previous novel and was sent back to the printers twice resulting in the publication of an additional 200,000 books. And Harlequin has chosen to use Burson-Marsteller’s media highlights reel for the Get Your Heart Racing campaign as its principal marketing tool for its 2007 trade and sales outreach.

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