What’s green and white and red all over?
The Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid, Spain, this Saturday, when Nissan Motor Corp. will splash its logo across LED banners as one of eight core sponsors of the UEFA Champions League final.
For those unfamiliar, the Champions League final is the culmination of a season-long European football tournament that brings the suspense of a March Madness bracket format (upsets! buzzer-beaters!) to determine the best club team. And yes, that’s football as in soccer.
As has become custom, Saturday’s game between English sides Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur is expected to draw a larger global audience than the Super Bowl. And while the U.S. television audience for the Champions League remains modest (around 2 million viewers), last year’s global TV Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid was placed at nearly 400 million viewers. By contrast the largest-ever Super Bowl audience was 114 million. You think the New England Patriots are a big deal? They have 4.5 million Twitter followers. Liverpool has 11.7 million.
Such reach is one reason why Nissan affiliated itself with the competition, which features such storied soccer powerhouses as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester City, and Juventus—all of whom were eliminated along the way as Tottenham and Liverpool marched toward the final. That’s like all four No. 1 seeds losing in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament.
Given the short attention span of most TV watchers, and the rise of fast-forwarding through commercials by binge watchers, live sports remains one of the last pieces of video content that people watch in real time—and thus can be exposed to advertising.
But it’s more than just a one-game sponsorship with an ad buy. Nissan’s campaign is a year-long commitment, as Champions League matches are played alongside teams’ home-country competition commitments, making it a battle of endurance as much as skill. Nissan has been tied to the Champions League since 2014, and recently re-upped through the 2020-21 season. Prior to Nissan, the Champions League’s automotive partner for a decade was Ford of Europe.
Speculations in the trade press estimate such a sponsorship costs upward of $50 million a year. Allyson Witherspoon, who became Nissan’s VP for marketing communications and media in North America earlier this year, declined to comment on the figure, other than, “It’s an investment, but we get a lot out of it. The scale of it is huge.
“This allows us to start having a conversation with people who aren’t as familiar with Nissan as a brand. We are integrating ourselves into people’s interest and doing it in a way that is organic and credible,” said Witherspoon, who formerly was Nissan’s general manager for global brand engagement—and thus essential to the Champions League deal.
In other words, Nissan’s marketing isn’t a “buy now” campaign. This is considered the “upper funnel” of the car-buying process, where people are beginning to familiarize themselves with products they might consider down the line. It’s a softer sell.
“With sports, it’s important the way you manage it,” Witherspoon said. “You can’t be blunt. You’re coming into someone’s passion point. You have to be relevant to them as a fan. It’s a different way to talk about technology and products. It has to feel credible and relevant to fans.”
As such, Nissan uses the opportunity to tell its semi-autonomous technology story. One such campaign was the unveiling of the Pitch-R, an autonomous robotic car that can precisely draw the chalk marks of a soccer field, anywhere. Cute, no? But also a brand building exercise for Pro Pilot driver assistance tech.
As for product demonstrations, in past years Nissan have shown a window-filled, high-ceilinged e-NV200 electric cargo van as a way to transport the tournament’s enormous trophy, and used electric Leafs as a transport solution for previous finals held in congested Berlin and Milan.
And in 2017—perhaps to counter the perception by some that football is boring and without action for long stretches—Nissan created the “Exciting Eleven,” which used research by Longborough University sports scientists to rank the top players in the tournament in terms of the excitement they brought to games. They then tested the elevated heart rates of game-watchers against those of passengers in a Nissan GT-R while being driven around the famed Spa-Francorchamps race track (the GT-R won out, barely).
Nissan’s involvement with the Champions League has elevated the way people see the automaker. Although not the sole reason, Nissan’s Champions League campaign has contributed to InterBrand steadily improving Nissan’s ranking in the Top 100 Best Global Brands from 56th in 2014 to 39th in 2017 (passing even Volkswagen, although Nissan fell to 40th last year).
“When you look at how people think of Nissan after seeing our content, we’re seeing an increase in brand familiarity and consideration,” Witherspoon said, noting Nissan has seen an almost 42-percent increase in brand opinion since starting their relationship.
Other corporate giants who are Champions League sponsors are Gazprom, Heineken, PepsiCo, MasterCard, Santander, Expedia, and Sony.
Note: MotorTrend’s Twitter account will feature a live comment feed of the game on Saturday, June 1, from inside the stadium, starting at or around 2:00 pm EDT/11:00 am PDT.
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