Case Study: Passionate Spokesman, Nimble Communications and Trackside Tweets Power Winning IndyCar Sponsorship

While his main job is to drive fast for the Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi IndyCar racing team, Charlie Kimball also talks to race fans about diabetes care and Novo Nordisk insulin products (such as the FlexPen he’s holding). Kimball’s an expert: he has Type 1 diabetes himself. Photo courtesy of Novo Nordisk

Company: Novo Nordisk, Inc. (NNI)

Timeframe: Jan. 2010 - April 2011

When Izod IndyCar Series driver Charlie Kimball gets buckled into his No. 83 race car, he not only carries water bottles with him to stay hydrated, he has orange juice to keep his blood sugar up. For Kimball is the only driver in the premier open-wheeled racing series in the U.S. with Type 1 diabetes. With this fact comes responsibility: Kimball and his car are fully sponsored by healthcare company Novo Nordisk, Inc. (NNI), which, among other products, provides insulin and other diabetes care products worldwide.
Besides his full-time job as a race car driver, Kimball is a spokesperson for Novo Nordisk and diabetes care, interacting with  thousands of diabetes patients. (In Jan. 2012, in a move that created controversy, Novo Nordisk signed Food Channel star Paula Deen, a type 2 diabetes patient, for a similar role.) Kimball executes his spokesperson role in winning style, with lots of help from the three-person Novo Nordisk communications staff.


The 27-year-old Kimball, who hails from Southern California, was diagnosed with diabetes in 2007 while racing in England. Upon his return to the U.S., Kimball’s doctor had the idea to connect this up-and-coming driver with Novo Nordisk. It was a good match. “We hit it off from the get-go,” says Sarah Spielvogel, manager of product communications for Novo Nordisk. “After five minutes we got the sense that he’s very passionate about what he does.”

The relationship started small, with Kimball doing a few interviews on diabetes on behalf the company in 2008. A year later it evolved into a full sponsorship in the Indy Lights series, the “minor league” of IndyCar.

The advantages to entering into such a sponsorship were great, says Spielvogel. While NNI is well-recognized as a leader in diabetes care, its insulin portfolio faces tough competition, she says. In addition, few U.S. doctors prescribe a pre-filled insulin delivery device (like NNI’s FlexPen) to patients with diabetes as an alternative to a vial and syringe, even though insulin delivery devices are used globally by as many as 85% of diabetes patients.

Further research conducted by Novo Nordisk found that IndyCar fans are 23% more likely to have diabetes. Why is that? Spielvogel can’t be certain. But Novo Nordisk knew there was a relevant audience to send their messages to. “We just needed to be smart about how we did that,” says Spielvogel. The communications team established three main sponsorship objectives for the Race with Insulin campaign:

•    Increase visibility and share of voice for the NNI portfolio of insulin products.
•    Motivate patients with diabetes to speak with their doctor about treatment with NNI products.
•    Position NNI as a leader in diabetes care.

To execute on those objectives, Novo Nordisk built the program around Kimball. They would not only tell his personal diabetes story—which is compelling enough—they would embed Kimball’s use of NNI products as a key part of his race preparation to ensure they were central to the story (he has used the company’s insulin since being diagnosed in 2007), as well as leverage patient-facing events to raise awareness of insulin portfolio and encourage patient requests for FlexPen.


After racing in the Indy Lights series in 2009-2010, Kimball ascended to the “majors,” the Izod IndyCar Series (which includes the Indianapolis 500), in 2011. By then NNI’s communications program was track tested, so to speak. But it did (and still does) require meticulous planning before the season began in the spring. “Our season actually  starts a week after the previous season ends,” says Spielvogel. Messaging is everything. “What is it that Charlie will be communicating and why?” says Spielvogel. From that planning, Novo Nordisk would execute this strategy through three tactics:

â–¶ Media Relations: This included coordinating track-side video and photo shoots for use with media, developing press materials and conducting local, regional and national media outreach.

â–¶ Social Media Engagement: Boasting the first pharmaceutical branded Twitter page (launched in 2009), @racewithinsulin would regularly share information about Kimball’s partnership with NNI and his use of its products to help manage his diabetes.

Unlike some sporting notables, Kimball does all Twitter posts himself. “It’s important for fans to know that it’s my voice, and there’s no wizard behind the curtain,” says Kimball. He adds that the mobility of Twitter gives him a way to interact with fans while he’s at the track, posting about the weather conditions and when he’s about to climb into the car. “It’s pulling the curtain back on my life as a racing driver,” Kimball says.

â–¶ Local Market Events: Through partnerships with the American Diabetes Association and Taking Control of Your Diabetes. Novo Nordisk secured direct-to-patient speaking opportunities at venues where patients are actively seeking information about diabetes management, including national conferences.

In addition, Kimball would sign autographs and participate in meet-and-greets, encouraging patients to work closely with their physician and not let diabetes stop them from pursuing their dreams. “Face-to-face is the platform most effective for me,” says Kimball. Those appearances also drive social media interaction. “When they get home they can send me a tweet.” This begins what Kimball and Novo Nordisk hope is a long cycle of engagement.


Kimball estimates two to three hours during a race weekend are spent on Novo Nordisk activities, and many more hours away from the venues. “It’s tough to put a number on it, because every time I’m in the race suit I represent Novo Nordisk,” he says (see the sidebar for Kimball’s spokesperson tips). 

The results from Jan. 2010 to April 2011 clearly show the awareness raised by Kimball and Novo Nordisk is time well spent. The results include: 

•    Media Relations: Race with Insulin generated more than 393 million media impressions; 306 original placements including two wire service stories (Associated Press); 47 print (including Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Diabetic Living and Today’s Dietician); 106 TV/radio; and 306 online placements.

•    Social Media: The Twitter page @racewithinsulin has increased its number of followers by 75% from Jan. to Dec. 2011. Currently there are 2,418 followers.

•    Awareness and Engagement: At 15 diabetes conferences, Kimball directly engaged more than 42,000 patients with his story. Preliminary research indicated a correlation between branded PR from the Race with Insulin campaign and an uptick in sales in two key markets.

•    Position NNI as Leader in Diabetes Care: Kimball’s appearances at 33 local market events further increased brand and company visibility to patients and key opinion leaders. Based on feedback from the sales force, these visits created partnership opportunities among key stakeholders.

Spielvogel’s PR lessons learned? First, the importance of collaboration. “Many groups and partners play a role in the campaign,” she says. Good communications between them is critical. And second, just like driving a race car, nimbleness in PR is a requirement. “You need to constantly adapt your strategies to whatever happens next,” she says.

For Kimball, what’s most important is driving fast in 2012. He finished 19th in the Izod IndyCar standings in 2011, and figures to move up with a new car and more experience under his belt. The good news: Novo Nordisk has signed a multiyear partnership extension with Chip Ganassi Racing.

Kimball feels a connection between his success on the track and his effectiveness as a diabetes awareness and product spokesman, “I’m a competitor and I want to win,” he says. “But having this relationship with fans who have diabetes gives me a perspective that helps me. When I get out of the car and someone asks me to sign their insulin pen, it’s a very rewarding feeling.”

Whether Kimball wins on the track or not, as a role model for diabetes awareness, he’s already a winner.




Sarah Spielvogel,; Charlie Kimball, @racewithinsulin; Jim Andrews,

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