Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't remember exactly where or when he shot his first commercial for a NASCAR sponsor, but he does remember how he felt about it.
"When I first started, I was really, really nervous," Earnhardt said recently, after wrapping up a commercial shoot that will introduce Nationwide Insurance's new campaign to viewers of the July 28 Indy 250 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the first time the NASCAR Nationwide Series will compete on the vaunted 2.5-mile track.
Earnhardt is anything but nervous now. In fact, he's the consummate professional, working through more than 15 takes of a 30-second introductory spot called "Invitation," shot at Charlotte Motor Speedway with Matt Jauchius, Nationwide's chief marketing and strategy officer.
It helps that the production crew is full of familiar faces.
"After a couple of years, I realized that the same companies used the same directors and same production company and group, so every time we shoot a Nationwide commercial, it's the same group, and I get this rapport with those people and get real comfortable around 'em," Earnhardt told the NASCAR Wire Service.
"They do a good job of making you feel like you're doing a good job and making you feel comfortable. If it weren't the same people every year, then I'd be nervous -- I'm shy anyways, and I'm real nervous around people I don't know."
Earnhardt may consider himself shy, but he's also authentic, and that's what registers with the focus groups that screen the Nationwide ads.
"We do all kinds of analytical tests, scientific tests and surveys and focus groups," Jauchius said. "What you and I see here -- this authenticity -- it's absolutely what tests when we do all or our professional tests.
"It's just him. What you see is what you get. That authenticity is the critical part of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s brand. That's part of the Nationwide Insurance brand, and that's why it works so well for us both."
The 30-second spot featuring Earnhardt and Jauchius is part of a broader "Join the Nation" campaign that will succeed the "World's Greatest Spokesperson" campaign, starting with NBC's broadcast of the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Summer Olympics. The campaign's over-arching spot, titled "Anthem," is voiced by actress Julia Roberts.
The campaign underlines Nationwide's status as a mutual company, and promotes the concept of customers as members. In addition to Earnhardt, Danica Patrick and father-and-son NASCAR Sprint Cup champions Ned and Dale Jarrett are featured in the commercials.
"Having Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick as our partners gives us a chance to showcase what we're all about, hopefully in a manner that's consistent with their brands," Jauchius said. "Those are the two biggest stars in the sport. They are charismatic. . . . Danica is also authentic and genuine. You get a personality from her that's a fiery competitor, and we like that.
"If you see the ads, we allow her personality to come through, and we allow Dale's to come through, which makes them natural and comfortable. . . . Our challenge is just to get that chemistry to show on camera, because it's very real, and that's exactly what we go for, to let their personalities shine through."
Part of Earnhardt's authenticity where Nationwide is concerned stems from his very real experience with the company. Earnhardt family members have been Nationwide customers for more than 30 years, and Earnhardt has availed himself of the company's services.
"I got me a red (Chevrolet) S-10 (pickup) -- and this was the first vehicle that I was making payments on and paying for the insurance and everything, and I rolled it on the highway on Christmas day, going to my Meemaw's house for a family reunion," Earnhardt said." I flipped it over pretty bad, and I had to call my dad at the reunion and tell him where I was.
"He came and pulled the truck out of the ditch on a flatbed truck and took it back to the shop. He wasn't too upset, because he had had the same accident when he was about that same age, so he kind of laughed a little bit. I learned a lot about insurance and was thankful to have it at the time, because I was able to get back on the highway and have the vehicle back in a couple of days."
Earnhardt has no difficulty representing Nationwide because of his familiarity with and belief in the company, but that doesn't mean he's going to commercial shoots fully prepared.
"Most of the time when I shoot a commercial, it's good that it lasts all day, because it takes me about half a day to get into it and get going," Earnhardt said. "I'm not really good at getting a script and reading over all that stuff and putting myself in the role before I get there, so I know what we're going to do and what we're going to talk about and how I'm coming at the consumer.
"I should do that more, but I just showed up today, really raw, with no idea what the lines were or anything, but I feel like I can jump right into it, because I feel like I fit right into the Nationwide deal and our relationship, and I know it's going to be a great commercial. I know it's going to look good, because I've been so happy with what we've done in the past, and it's easy to get excited for it."
It's easy for Nationwide to get excited about the product, too, given the metrics from the company's NASCAR program. The addition of Patrick to the mix has helped produce a critical mass.
"Our NASCAR track sales in 2012 at the end of the first quarter were up 40 percent versus Q1 for 2011," Jauchius said. "What we're seeing is, it's kind of like a flywheel turning. This is year five of our NASCAR partnership, and what you're seeing is momentum building. Frankly, it didn't start as quickly as we wanted, but it's been building and building every year since."
Much of that has to do with Nationwide's multifaceted approach to the series sponsorship.
"At Nationwide, it's not just about writing a check," Jauchius said. "It's about a relationship. So for NASCAR specifically, we take the investment in television media very seriously -- print media, digital media and also on-site track activation.
"There are 75 million NASCAR fans, and these fans test very well with who we are as a company. They have cars and homes, they're brand-loyal, and they look for a company like Nationwide. So you just don't want to write a check to hear 'NASCAR Nationwide.' You want to have television, digital, on-site, everything. Otherwise it doesn't work."