Nissan's top marketer on why sports sponsorship is still worth blowing the budget

Nissan ambassadors Bale and Aguero

Marquee sports sponsorships like the Uefa Champions League don't come cheap, previous estimates claim they can set back sponsors in excess of £40m a year. But, suggesting these events don't deliver value is shortsighted, according to Nissan's top marketer.

Nissan has been attached to the Uefa Champions League since 2014 and in 2017 it extended this relationship until 2021, proof that the competition has expedited the company's brand building efforts in Europe.

Speaking to the The Drum hours before an action-packed Champions League final in Kiev (26 March), Roel de Vries, corporate vice president and global head of marketing and brand strategy at the Japanese auto brand said leaning on the football competition remains a core tenant of its ad strategy.

"When people say that these things are just too obvious or a waste of money, I think they don’t really understand why we do this," he said.

"The power has gone to consumer, they watch what they want when they want. Most people whether we like it or not do not want to see the ads. They go where there are no ads. In the digital side, there are adblockers and ad skips so as marketers we have to ask, how do I still reach my consumer?"

For de Vries, it's through live sports.

"Live sports is the one area where people want to engage, they still want to watch it. It is not as exciting to watch the game on the DVR the next day. You may watch highlights but if you are a fan of the game you are going to watch it live."

Copa90 research, The Modern Football Fan, recently found that 76% of all UK football fans watch football highlights online. Around 81% of 16-19 year old UK football fans do this on YouTube.

BT Sport in the UK is embracing this new trend and opening up more eyes to advertisers in the process by airing the final on YouTube for free. Here its ads - and those of the official sponsors - reached a wider audience.

"Like with the Super Bowl, with the Champions League, if the advertising is done well, it is part of the entertainment, and consumers don’t mind it," he said.

To successfully integrate with football - like it did with the Star Wars series - the auto brand has had to get creative with De Vries admitting cars don’t meld particularly well with football.

"If you are Heineken, the connection [with football] is obvious, you watch the game and have a beer and the ad is three friends watching the game and having a beer. Everybody understands this. Adidas shows the sport and says 'buy our shoes and our shirts'. But why would a car company be there?"

His answer is Nissan Intelligent Mobility.

The campaign underlines Nissan's innovative systems in self or assisted driving, and electric cars. It links each vehicle’s performance to that of the best players in football. Furthermore the technical talent of football's top players and staff ties in with its own skillsets.

But there are rules that must be followed. It is imperative that Nissan runs creative during the Champions League that includes football or footballers and not simply repurpose existing work.

To gain some gravitas in the space, Nissan, leant on ambassadors, including tournament winner Gareth Bale, who scored a stunning overhead kick in the final, and Manchester City forward Sergio Aguero. Both were rather injured throughout the season, making capturing the contractual content somewhat difficult, shared de Vries.

What's working?

There are three platforms where the brand is making solid inroads. De Vries admitted that these are largely traditional platforms.

"Hardly anyone talks about them, but the perimeter boards are very important. They are very valuable because it makes it very obvious we have a connection to the game."

Next, he noted the power of TV advertising. Uefa holds back the optimum spots for sale to its partners, bundling them to broadcasters across the world. The gaps are then filled by local advertisers. De Vries said: "This is why this property is so good."

And finally, he cited Nissan's Goal of the Week partnership with Goal.com, a project with Nissan actually helped Uefa create. It seeded the best goals each week and fans could vote on what goals feature - in exchange for their names and email address. The final product (below) was inspired by Nissan's Play of the Day package in its cricket work and has proven to be compelling viewing, especially on social.

Speaking of social, according to social analytics firm 4C Insights, the UEFA Champions League drove almost 4m direct engagements online. Nissan ambassador Bale garnered 373,692 engagements, trumped only by the injured Mohammad Salah (638,723) and Cristiano Ronaldo (359,001).

Additionally, Nissan runs a trophy tour throughout Europe where fans clamour for a glimpse of the silverware. Also it offers access to win exclusive Uefa Champions League prizes. Despite this significant investment in both the sponsorship rights and the content around it, linking the marketing activity to any sales uplift remains a challenge.

Instead, softer metrics like brand sentiment, understanding of core values and whether the public finds Nissan exciting is measured. "Since we started with the Champions League we have had quite a strong uptick."

On the value exchange, de Vries stressed: "It works otherwise we would not have extended it."

Innovating the game

Before the final in an over-capacity Kiev, the company unveiled how it was using its expertise to improve football at a grass-roots level through something called Pitch-R, a pitch line painting robot that is fully autonomous.

The prototype - when finished - will be toured to create pop-up pitches in selected areas. These pitch markings will biodegrade after about a week.

Furthermore, it theorised that the same sensors guiding its cars could be used to officiate the school boy games where there jumpers are often laid down in place of goal posts. While these solutions may be costly, they could feasibly be implemented in the future.

While these fun innovations may or may not currently help the game, from a marketing perspective, it makes sense for Nissan to link its tech with developing the game.

"We want to keep digging, how can we use our technology to do something for the grassroots? Pitch-R is very cool but there is more we can do, like goal-line tech, we want to keep on having fun with it. We also have our robots playing the game."

And finally, the Dutchman when asked about the World Cup, expressed remorse that his side, the mighty Netherlands, had failed to make the cut. He also leaned in on why, as a sponsorship product, he prefers Uefa's annual competition to the World Cup.

De Vries said: "The Champions League is on every year and almost weekly for us. It is important to have a platform to make part of your everyday marketing, so you can always use it. Any of these tournaments that happen every four years are just really hard to always use. You have the rights to always do it, but it is very difficult to use your rights in a year when there is no World Cup."

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