What is Nissan’s sponsorship strategy and how does it work?

Two years into its bet on fewer but bigger sponsorships like the Champions League, Nissan is shifting gears to balance more fan involvement in its activations with a sharper focus on the technology powering its cars.

How it does this - like it is for most brands - comes down to how well it can attach itself to the emotion around the rights it owns. It sounds straightforward and yet it’s hard to see a clear role for a car brand in Europe’s top club competition in the same it is for a beer brand like Heineken. People drink beer when they watch football, they’re not going to be naturally thinking about a car while they do it.

That’s the conundrum facing Nissan’s chief marketing officer Roel de Vries, who has a long-term view for how his brand builds that association. “The biggest challenge we have is finding that balance between still being a car company and being meaningful on the evening of a match by being entertaining,” he admitted.

“When people tune in to watch a Champions League they want to be entertained, so we need to be interesting to be part of that. You’ll never see us use the sponsorship to say ‘come buy your Qashqai’. We need to be part of the entertainment and try not to get too specific with customers. Then we need to be as relevant as possible as a car brand.”

Whereas the first phase of this strategy was straight out of the sponsorship playbook – “a famous footballer performing and then there needs to be the involvement of the car” – the second will be more adventurous. Sticking with the ‘Engineers of Excitement” strategy that saw the likes of Yaya Toure front its promotions, Nissan is focusing on the journey; the idea of associating with what people do leading up to the match.

“They drive, they leave the office, pick up friends and then after the match getting home,” explained Jean-Pierre Diernaz, vice president for marketing at Nissan Europe. ”This notion of ‘together the journey is more exciting’, centres around the ambassadors and fans. What we will try to do is make those moments leading up the game and after the game more exciting.”

It’s not a wholly original hypothesis; Heineken has been pushing to dominate the social chatter in the run up to and after Champions League matches to capitalise on that short window. However, Nissan believes its own take gives it time to find its position around the league and more importantly keeps it in the view of football fans. The rationale being, that the more it can tap into these moments then the more likely it is people will come to associate Nissan with the league, something de Vries admitted will materialise over the long-term.

“I believe you need to stick with a properly for a period and I don’t think this [the Champions League sponsorship] is something we do for the short-term,” he continued. “it takes time for people to recognise you’re a sponsor and it takes time to find your position within it.”

Nissan is doubling down on social to get that clarity around the league. So much so that that the brand wants to drive people to its own social accounts, alongside those of newly-signed ambassadors Gareth Bale and Sergio Aguero and Uefa.

“There is a content battle between sponsorship and the one which have more value than anything else are those which are live such as sport and music shows to some extent,” said Diernaz. “The rest tend to lose value because of the quantity and the PPV and the catch-up TV. The catch up of the match tonight will have no real value, it's the moment which has strong value.”

As other brands have done before it, Nissan knows having players like Bale and Aguero on-side are a way to getting cut through at the right moments. As Diernaz puts it: “Content is king and if you want to create content you need a story and to create a story you need to have actors. When we went to the UCL we said it was very important to have access to some players.”

Despite Nissan’s demands, Lionel Messi and Cristiano – the two best players in the world – were cut from Nissan’s short list “because they are super expensive”. Additionally, both stars have a myriad of sponsors and being another in that long line might have “diluted what we were trying to do”.

“Also it would have been too easy, we are a challenger brand and we don't want to go for the two biggest names,” added Diernaz. Its why Nissan had its eye on Manchester United’s Paul Pogba – “because he is great on social media and is very popular” – however he is no longer eligible for the Champions League following his switch from Juventus in the summer.

“The Euros definitely held things up because we had to wait and see if players moved, the last thing we wanted was for a player to sign for another team which wouldn't be playing in the UCL,” Diernaz.

Beyond football, Nissan has been slowly tuning its sponsorships in key markets, with the Olympics and Paralympics in Rio and the International Cricket Council (ICC). Off the back of its sponsorships Diernaz claimed it has seen an 8% increase in spontaneous awareness, a 5% increase in YouGov brand value and is now the number one automotive brand on social.

Additional reporting by Tony Connelly.

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