Lauren Edwards took a lifetime leap of faith on the long-distance advice of a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion dialing in from the ski slopes of Aspen.
Jimmie Johnson, who had employed Edwards for five years as his digital and social media manager, was going up a mountain when he made the fateful phone call on Dec. 30, 2016.
“He said, ‘I’ve got two minutes, I’m on a gondola, here are my thoughts: Go start a company!’ ” Edwards told NBC Sports with a laugh.
Within three weeks, she had founded Reine Digital, which counted Johnson as its first client and since has grown to become a female-powered auto racing industry upstart representing brands and drivers across multiple series.
“I hadn’t really planned or thought about (owning a company),” said Edwards, who had been in NASCAR PR and marketing since graduating from William and Mary in 2008, working on Sprint accounts before joining Johnson’s team. “But 95 percent of the reason I did it was that athletes of Jimmie’s caliber don’t turn to people and say, ‘Start a business, I’ll just be a client!’
“I’ll never get this opportunity again. I’ll regret if I don’t take it. That factored into it, and it’s been fun to see the growth of the company and direction we’re heading.”
Edwards’ Charlotte-based boutique firm quickly evolved from focusing solely on social media to also handling marketing and communications strategy for several brands and drivers.
Its most recent addition is 2016 NTT IndyCar Series champion and 2019 Indy 500 winner Simon Pagenaud, who joined a driver roster that included Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Alex Bowman. NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte also works with Reine Digital (whose French-inspired name stems from Edwards and her husband, Jon, splitting time between Quebec City and Charlotte, the “Queen City”).
The company, which is comprised of five female employees, also has NASCAR sponsors Axalta and Lumar among its clients, along with some local businesses in Charlotte.
Though its work with Johnson has brought the most exposure for Reine Digital (notably with helping Gatorade’s social impressions spike with Johnson’s run in the 2019 Boston Marathon), Lauren Edwards was proudest of working with Bowman on a popular Tim Richmond throwback campaign for the 2019 Southern 500.
I’m going full Hollywood #NASCARThrowback pic.twitter.com/XSgnI6koej
— Alex Bowman (@Alex_Bowman) August 28, 2019
Bowman (a self-described introvert) dressed up as the flamboyant Richmond in his Folgers firesuit from the mid-1980s in a series of viral social posts that were orchestrated by Reine Digital, which helped track down all of the necessary vintage clothing and props in a two-month project.
Bowman, a huge Richmond fan, nixed posing in a Speedo on a boat but was happy to have the original Folgers car as a backdrop (courtesy of Hendrick Motorsports’ museum).
If you got it, flaunt it. #NASCARThrowback pic.twitter.com/M9NvfjeAP8
— Alex Bowman (@Alex_Bowman) August 30, 2019
“We thought (the campaign) would be just some fun photos on social, and now it’s included in the marketing collateral for (the 2021 races at) Darlington,” Edwards said. “They’re still talking about it two years later. It’s taken on this whole new life with so much additional value.
“Athletes can make a difference by putting stuff on their social to drive organic conversation for sponsors. Not necessarily by selling a specific product and saying, ‘Here’s the link, go buy it,’ but by getting everyone talking about something with the brand included in it.”
That moment you realize it’s the freaking weekend #NASCARThrowback pic.twitter.com/33zB8kNWE9
— Alex Bowman (@Alex_Bowman) August 30, 2019
Some of her work has transcended business, such as last June when Edwards helped Johnson assemble the video in which several Cup drivers condemned racism after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
“I talked with a lot of Jimmie’s friends who were very involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, and I helped put the script together,” she said. “I was literally contacting every single driver working on getting their video clips and putting it together.
“We worked really closely with NASCAR to edit it. That was a moment that it was bigger than just me. I’m in this place because I can work with people who have a bigger voice than I do and make a difference.”
During a recent interview with NBC Sports, Edwards, 34, outlined how social media has evolved, her vision for Reine Digital and the progress of women in motorsports (the excerpts below were lightly edited for clarity):
Q: What’s the goal of an agency focused on social and digital branding in NASCAR and how does it differ from traditional PR?
Edwards: “In a nutshell, it’s brand-building with the building block being your online presence in social and digital media. The company has even evolved since we started it. When I first started, it was, ‘OK, we’re going to do social media,’ and what we very quickly realized is so much of what we’re doing on social media is strategic brand building
“It’s so comprehensive between PR, marketing, communications and traditional social media, it’s all tied together. In the very beginning, social media was this weird thing of, ‘I don’t know, does it go to the marketing department of the company? The PR department?’ It was all by itself, and some companies had it in the tech IT department. Working with brands, athletes and individuals, we took it as we’re like boots on the ground. We’re the first step for these messages to come across, and from there we’re seeing the PR pickup and marketing strategy built around something that started on social media.”
Q: What’s the philosophy for how you encourage clients to use social media?
Edwards: “Where we feel we are experts is understanding, knowing and learning the platforms really well and how to make them work. There are certain groups that see social as a vacuum. ‘Well, this is happening, we’re going to do this.’ That’s not us. That’s part of why we have so much success. We look at it and say, ‘How do we create something that plays well on social but has legs in other avenues?’ And some things are just funny and fun but there is the bigger side of strategically looking at the months ahead. How do we tie this whole big marketing campaign into something that makes sense with a building block online? It is the easiest way to tap into a lot of people. It has the ability to be bigger than just itself.
“If you do something well in the social media space, it can be shared infinitely, which is not always the case with specific at-track marketing. While that’s amazing and has every place in our sport and sports overall, you are limited to the people there at track experiencing that. With social, you’re unlimited. It could get as big as the world if something really blows up.”
Q: How do you generate ideas such as the Alex Bowman/Tim Richmond posts?
Edwards: “We do a lot of brainstorming. So usually once a month or two months, I try to take the team out of the office away from everything, have a glass of wine and let’s just ideate and come up with fun ideas. Or general conversations on what’s on social and trends we love seeing.”
Q: Is your all-female staff by design?
Edwards: “That is not intentional. Everyone thinks it is. I’m a huge supporter of women in sports, but I’ve tried to hire men before. The last full-time hire, I really wanted to hire a dude and went through some resumes and interviews, but every single hire has been a woman.
Real queens fix each other's crowns 👑 Happy #InternationalWomensDay to all the strong women out there! pic.twitter.com/s0YKT7hgz9
— Reine Digital & Consulting (@reinedigital) March 8, 2021
“We speak for five male athletes, but you’d never assume we have a female behind a keyboard sending the posts. If people knew all these drivers had this team of females behind them, they’d lose their minds.”
Q: You’ve been working around racing for nearly 15 years including internships, are you seeing signs of progress for women having greater influence and sway in motorsports?
Edwards: “I think some of the outward stuff is getting better — the off-color jokes and comments and those kinds of things you don’t see or hear much anymore. What still does happen, and I think will without more women in senior leadership, is that a lot of times it turns into the boys’ club. All the guys are getting together to go golfing or go to the brewery.
“It ends up being someone in a very senior position and junior position, and it creates this friendship, and you see some males advancing, not that they’re not qualified, but there are more doors and opportunities open to them because they’re creating these relationships. I don’t think it’s intentional, but as you see more females in leadership roles, and they’re getting together and go to a winery with women in organization. That’s when it will start to change. We just need more women in those places. You need that from the senior level to even out the boys’ club mentality sometimes.”
Q: A common sentiment is that sponsorship often has kept women from excelling in racing. Do you feel a greater sense of agency in changing that through your business?
Edwards: “One of my biggest struggles is with self-worth above purpose. I know I’m good at what I’m doing, but how am I bettering anyone? Because I’d gone to college and was passionate about economic development and a big part of it was there are so many systems in place that can be made better and make peoples’ lives better.
“The last year, there have been so many moments I feel like I’ve been able to help make a difference. It makes me feel so good. That’s what I’m starting to see from the female side of things. I am now a part of conversations that I never would have been a part of before. I have the ability to influence things because of the role that I have with many different companies and athletes and even within the industry. I’m starting to get a lot of outreach and being in meetings I never would have been in before. And I never sat down before and said, ‘I want to be a CEO, an entrepreneur,’ but now that I’m in this space, there are opportunities opening to me, and I feel really fortunate to be able to be in that position and try to make a difference.”
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