With the green flag set to drop on the 2011 auto racing season, IEG SR spoke with Ben Reiling, director of motorsports marketing for Coca-Cola North America, about where motorsports fits in Coke’s vast portfolio, how its approach to racing has evolved over the years, and what’s new for this season, among other topics.

Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.

IEG SR: Before we speak specifically about motorsports, I’d like to take a look at the overall role sponsorship plays in Coca-Cola’s marketing mix.

Reiling: It’s all about using borrowed equity to touch the passion points of consumers and bring our brand to life. Sponsorship gives us an opportunity to be part of our consumers’ lifestyle through an activity they truly appreciate and enjoy.

We want to bring our brand to life through ticket sweepstakes and other experiential activities that reinforce consumers’ enjoyment.

With a brand like Coke, awareness is not an issue. We focus on being extremely relevant by using sports and entertainment in a way that enhances and contributes to consumer lifestyles.

IEG SR: Coke’s portfolio includes the Olympics, the NCAA, pro sports teams and other types of properties. What do motorsports properties such as NASCAR and NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series, and your driver deals under the Coca-Cola Racing Family banner, bring to the table?

Reiling: There are a couple of ways that motorsports benefits our company, our brand and the Coca-Cola system.

First, motorsports fans understand the role of sponsors, including our logo on vehicles and driver suits and how a 20-ounce bottle of Coke is part of a driver’s presence during interviews. They understand that our support helps bring their sport to life.

Coke is part of the fabric of other sports, but the level of awareness among motorsports fans is a notch higher.

In addition, the motorsports season is very long, and it gives our system and customers a wide window to bring the sport to life on the national, regional and local levels.

IEG SR: Coke has been involved in NASCAR for decades. How has your approach changed over the years?

Reiling: There has been an evolution in our approach to motorsports. That evolution is not exclusive to motorsports: Just like everything we do, we constantly look at the consumer and retail landscape, and how our business is adjusting and evolving.

One area of change is the evolution of social media and how race fans consume the sport. We are paying more attention to that type of communication and the best way to reach fans.

For example, we have established the Coca-Cola Racing Twitter site as a platform to communicate and interact with fans. Race fans want to hear from their favorite drivers, and we have enlisted members of the Coca-Cola Racing Family.

Our relationship with tracks also has evolved over the past several years. Not too long ago we were at seven NASCAR tracks, but we are now at 18 through our 2007 partnership with Int’l Speedway Corp. The opportunity to bring our brands to life at venues is a big shift.

IEG SR: Can you elaborate on that? Why expand the track relationships?

Reiling: With race fans as passionate as they are, it gives us an opportunity to drive our brand equity and a reason to consider Coca-Cola after they have left a race.

The February-through-November NASCAR season also gives us an opportunity to bring the sport to life with assets that our distribution centers and bottlers can leverage with retailers and foodservice operators to drive incremental business leading up to a race.

Venues also offer exclusive pouring rights, as well as trial and sampling opportunities. It gives us an opportunity to reach thousands of people during a weekend.

IEG SR: Why did you add Kurt Busch to the Coca-Cola Racing Family this year.

Reiling: We added Kurt because he represents the spirit of our brand, not just from a TV or print standpoint. He has the ability to interact with consumers and customers in a positive manner.

We have 10 Sprint Cup drivers in the Family program. We leverage the relationships at the point of sale, through out-of-home media and the My Coke Rewards program.

In addition to the 10 drivers, we also maintain relationships with former drivers such as Richard Petty and Ned Jarrett to give us more breadth throughout the year. We conduct more than 130 driver appearances each year. The program gives our customer teams and bottlers the opportunity to bring the drivers to life in local markets.

IEG SR: You have a new partnership with Busch’s team, Penske Racing. What does that add?

Reiling: Penske is a tremendous business organization, which is an added benefit. We use all of our relationships with race teams to look for business-to-business opportunities.

We are still early in the relationship, and we are still discussing a number of things. But think about the number of vehicles the Coke system has on the road. One portion of Penske’s business services trucks, and we are starting to have those conversations.

In any relationship we have, whether its Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing or Roush Fenway Racing, we look for business opportunities to work together. But it has to be good for them and good for us.

IEG SR: Can you share a B2B success story?

Reiling: Several years ago we welcomed Tony Stewart into the Coca-Cola Racing Family, as well as Home Depot, his primary sponsor at the time. We worked with Home Depot to place vending machines in Home Depot locations. Joey Logano has taken the driver’s seat for Home Depot, but the relationship still exists today.

Tony Stewart moved on to Office Depot, and we now sell in Office Depot locations.

IEG SR: Any new activation programs planned for 2011?

Reiling: There are two highlights this year. First, we have some initiatives in place around Coke’s 125th anniversary. We will bring that celebration to life through our NASCAR partnership.

We also plan to host Coca-Cola Family Track Walks at five locations this year. We tested it at five tracks last year as a platform to help consumers celebrate their passion for the sport. Fans come down to the track and take the first trip around the track on race day morning.

Last year we had more than 30,000 participants, and some of those days had a temperature in the 30s. It’s not very often you get to walk around the field before the Super Bowl or a baseball game. This program allows consumers to walk the hallowed ground where their heroes will be competing. It’s a very uplifting experience.

We will have five events this year, some of which are new markets. People loved the program, and we will continue to look at how we can expand it.

IEG SR: How does Coca-Cola evaluate success of its partnerships?

Reiling: We measure a combination of elements. On the tactical side, which is more focused on return on objectives, we look at the health of the sport in terms of the Coke system’s consumption of assets. That includes requests for driver appearances, tour dates for experiential assets, approvals for the use of NASCAR or driver marks, and the number of point-of-sale items purchased and used.

I’m happy to say, despite the gloom over the past several years, that demand has increased. The appetite is still there.

From a brand management standpoint, we are more focused on return on investment. We will look at a number of key markets and, from a NASCAR or NHRA standpoint, we will work with local teams to measure the number of activation plans put into place, how many customers activated a partnership, and our volume and share numbers. From there, we can glean a profitability number.

We also use syndicated data and proprietary research to determine whether or not customers are walking away with a more favorable impression of Coke or Coke Zero, and if our awareness scores that result from programs that we’ve put in place with NASCAR and the NHRA are as strong as those associated with the Olympics and NCAA.