Like their domestic counterparts, luxury import auto brands have significantly increased their use of sponsorship over the past year. 

Those deals range from five- and six-figure ties with local, regional and national events to seven-figure naming rights deals.

Case in point: BMW of North America, LLC this fall announced a new partnership with the Big Ten Conference; Audi of America, LLC in July expanded its involvement with polo with a new tie with The Foundation Polo Challenge sponsored by Tiffany & Co. in Santa Barbara, Calif.; while American Honda Motor Co. earlier this year inked new deals with pro cycling teams and events on behalf of the redesigned Acura TSX sports wagon.

And in the biggest deal of the year, Mercedes-Benz USA, LLC in September announced 10-year naming rights to the Louisiana Superdome.

Below, two trends in luxury auto sponsorships:

Trend 1: More Branded Entertainment Deals
While luxury auto brands have used branded entertainment for years, many have placed more emphasis on the medium in the recent past.

For example, Volvo Cars of North America, LLC has built on its long-running association with Summit Entertainment’s The Twilight Series with a tie-in to the Nov. 18 release of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1. Similarly, BMW has expanded its partnership with Paramount Pictures’ Mission Impossible franchise with placement in the Dec. 21 release of Mission Impossible—Ghost Protocol.

In addition, Acura earlier this year aligned with Marvel Studios, LLC’s Thor, its first movie tie-in. The auto brand activated the tie with three special-edition movie-themed vehicles, a dedicated web site and the opportunity for dealers to host Thor screenings prior to the film’s general release. 

For its part, Volvo partnered with Twilight to reach young-adult females.

“The opportunity was handed to us as the vampire craze was building, and it gives us an opportunity to reach a younger, female target,” said Linda Gangeri, Volvo’s national advertising manager.

Volvo is activating the tie with two online promotions. The Journey to the Wedding promo dangles a trip to Brazil and the S60 R-Design vehicle featured in the movie; while a Facebook promo offers tickets to the film’s premier.

“We have already seen a major increase in brand awareness and brand consideration, which ultimately drives purchase intent and sales,” said Gangeri. “The Twilight phenomenon has turned into the Volvo phenomenon.”

Trend 2: More Customer Perks
Luxury auto makers also are increasingly tapping sponsorship to access tickets and other inventory that can be used to reward customers.

Case in point: BMW activates The Big Ten Conference by offering premier parking to attendees driving its vehicles.

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc.’s Lexus brand has long used sponsorship to reward customers with unique, one-of-a-kind experiences. That includes access to the Lexus Club at sports venues and the opportunity to attend cooking demonstrations by top chefs.

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Objectives for companies in the luxury import auto category include promotional opportunities for new or redesigned vehicles; access to talent to serve as brand ambassadors; on-site test drives and one-on-one marketing opportunities for dealers.
Luxury auto importers also use sponsorship to support their brand positioning. For example, Lexus focuses on epicurean events and entertainment venues to support its pursuit of excellence positioning.

Below, sponsorship activity on behalf of companies in the luxury import auto category.

American Honda Motor Co.
1919 Torrance Blvd.
Torrance, CA 90501

Susie Rossick, brand manager, national advertising

Sponsorship/Activation Strategy: Acura this year inked new ties to two pro cycling teams—BMC and Kelly Benefit Strategies OptumHealth—and the TD Bank Philadelphia Int’l Cycling Championship; the auto brand inked the ties to promote the redesigned TSX sports wagon to affluent consumers in need of cargo space. Acura dropped sailing and other properties over the past few years in favor of a “less is more” sponsorship strategy. Parent Honda Motor Co. earlier this year made Acura the lead vehicle at the Sundance Film Festival; the tie builds on Acura’s sponsorship of Film Independent’s Spirit Awards. Acura this year entered the branded entertainment space with a partnership with Thor, its first movie tie-in.

Current Deals: Corporate: BMC Racing Team; Film Independent’s Spirit Awards; Grammy Awards; Kelly Benefit Strategies OptumHealth Pro Cycling Team; New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell;  Pinehurst Resort, North Carolina; Sundance Film Festival; TD Bank Philadelphia Int’l Cycling Championship; WTT Newport Beach Breakers and Sacramento Capitals; World TeamTennis. Dealers: The Armory Show, New York City; Art Chicago; Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest.

Additional Comments: Acura used the Armory Show and Art Chicago to promote the 2012 Acura TL. The brand has a partnership with Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc.’s W Hotels, around which it provides transportation for guests.

Audi of America, LLC
2200 Ferdinand Porsche Dr.
Herndon, VA 20171

Scott Keogh, CMO

Sponsorship/Activation Strategy: Audi focuses on film festivals, ski resorts and other properties that draw celebrities and affluent consumers. The company this year inked a new tie to The Foundation Polo Challenge sponsored by Tiffany & Co. in Santa Barbara, Calif. to support its long-time support of polo. Audi this year renewed its partnership with Best Buddies Int’l, a nonprofit founded by Anthony Kennedy Shriver; the automaker activates the tie with the Audi Best Buddies Challenge charity walk, run and ride fundraiser in Washington, D.C. Dealer Jim Ellis Audi this year inked a new partnership with the NBA Atlanta Hawks; the tie affords title of a lounge in the Philips Arena.

Current Sponsorships: Corporate: Presenting: AFI Fest, Los Angeles. Cosponsor: American Film Market; Aspen/Snowmass;  Best Buddies Int’l; Design Miami; Emmy Awards; The Foundation Polo Challenge sponsored by Tiffany & Co., Santa Barbara, Calif.; MLB Arizona Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants; Tavistock Cup; U.S. Ski & Snowboard Assn.; Vail Valley Foundation. Dealers: Empire City Casino, Yonkers, N.Y.; Houston Symphony; NBA Atlanta Hawks; Windy City Wine Festival presented by US Bank, Chicago.

Additional Comments: Vail Valley Foundation tie includes title of the Audi Birds of Prey men’s World Cup ski event. Audi this year launched a TV ad for the A6 coupe during the Emmy Awards. Parent Audi AG sponsors a number of pro sports, sailing, golf and motorsports events around the world including the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup and Ryder Cup 2018.

BMW of North America, LLC
300 Chestnut Ridge Rd.
Woodcliff Lake, NJ 07677

Jack Pitney, vice president of marketing

Sponsorship/Activation Strategy: The country’s largest luxury auto import focuses on three types of properties: The Olympics, pro golf and Susan G. Komen For The Cure. On the Olympic front, BMW in 2010 inked official mobility partner status of the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Bobsled & Skeleton, US Speedskating, USA Swimming and USA Track & Field. The automaker provides the NGBs technological expertise to support its performance-based positioning. BMW is activating Mission Impossible—Ghost Protocol with year-end “Mission to Drive” sales event. The company also will host 200 screenings for BMW customers will run a contest dangling a trip to the movie’s premier. BMW this year signed a new tie with the Big Ten Conference; the company activates the partnership by providing preferred parking for BMW customers.

Current Deals: Corporate: Title: BMW Championship PGA Tour stop. Cosponsor: Atlanta Tennis Championships ATP tournament; The Barclays PGA Tour stop; Big Ten Conference; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, N.Y.; Sony Ericsson Open ATP/WTA tournament, Susan G. Komen For The Cure; The Tour Championship presented by Coca-Cola; USA Bobsled & Skeleton; USA Hockey; USA Swimming; USA Track & Field; U.S. Olympic Committee; US Speedskating. Dealers: Title: BMW Tennis Championship, Sunrise, Fla. Presenting: Cigars And Guitars, Tampa Bay, Fla. Cosponsor: AutoZone Liberty Bowl; Boston College Athletics; Concord Museum, Mass.; The Heritage PGA Tour stop; Nantucket Film Festival; New Jersey Marathon; Philadelphia Zoo; Ridgewood Run, N.J.; Stamford Town Center, Conn.; Toughman, Rochester, N.Y.

Additional Comments: Leverages Guggenheim partnership with the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a mobile structure that addresses issues of contemporary urban life; the lab will travel to nine major cities worldwide over the next six years. USOC deal runs through 2015. Parent BMW AG in early 2011 extended official car status of MotoGP through 2016. Estimated 2010 sponsorship spend: $20 million to $25 million.

Nissan North America, Inc.
1 Nissan Way
Franklin, TN 37067

Ben Poore, vice president

Sponsorship/Activation Strategy: Japanese import typically uses sponsorship to gain one-on-one marketing platforms and play up its Inspirational tagline. Case in point: Infiniti leveraged the 2011 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance with the Infiniti Moments of Inspiration exhibition in conjunction with Hearst Magazines; the event featured celebrity cooks and the new Infiniti JX Concept and restyled 2012 Infiniti FX. Infiniti in 2010 replaced its partnership with The Big Ten Conference in favor of an expanded, multi-faceted deal with the NCAA. The auto brand frequently sponsors properties located near its Franklin, Tenn. headquarters. For example, Infiniti this year inked a new partnership with the local Chukkers for Charity polo tournament; the auto brand leveraged the tie with on-site vehicle display.

Current Deals: Corporate:  Presenting: Chukkers for Charity polo event, Franklin, Tenn. Cosponsor: Cirque du Soleil; Nashville Symphony; NCAA; Pebble Beach Concours D’ Elegance; SF Chefs week, San Francisco; Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit.

Additional Comments: Infiniti earlier this year inked a new partnership with the Red Bull Formula 1 team to support its expansion into Europe, China, India and Russia. Infiniti in 2010 expanded its partnership with Cirque du Soleil to include the U.S and other markets; the company leverages the sponsorship with a sweeps that dangles a private performance by Cirque artists.

Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.
19001 S. Western Ave.
Torrance, CA  90501

Adrian Si, manager, events and partnerships

Sponsorship/Activation Strategy: Lexus largely focuses on professional golf, fashion and food and wine events to support is luxury positioning and drive consideration. The company activates ties to enhance the owner experience. For example, Lexus provides preferred parking at sports venues and the opportunity to attend culinary events hosted by celebrity chefs. “We want to enhance the consumer experience on behalf of Lexus,” said Si. The auto brand this year expanded its presence on the culinary scene with a tie to the inaugural Los Angeles Food & Wine presented by American Express Publishing event and ties to six celebrity chefs. Activates U.S. Golf Assn. with on-site product display, interactive exhibits and appearances by pro golfers. Leverages Council of Fashion Designers of America with the Lexus Eco-Fashion Challenge.

Current Deals: Corporate: Aspen Food & Wine Classic;  Council of Fashion Designers of America; Bank Atlantic Center, Sunrise, Fla.; Legg Mason Tennis Classic presented by Geico ATP tournament, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles Food & Wine presented by American Express Publishing; MLB San Francisco Giants, Pittsburgh Pirates, Texas Rangers and Washington Nationals; NBA Indiana Pacers and Minnesota Timberwolves; New Haven Open at Yale presented by First Niagara WTA/USTA Tournament; NFL New York Jets; Pebble Beach Food & Wine presented by American Express Publishing; Pebble Beach Resorts; Philadelphia Wine Festival; Sybase Match Play Championship LPGA tournament; Texas Ballet Theater; University of Maryland Athletics; U.S. Golf Assn.; Verizon Wireless Corporate Classic 5K, Morristown, N.J. Dealers: Presenting: Cox Classic PGA Tour stop; Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, San Diego, Calif.; The Sun Winefest, Uncasville, Conn.  Cosponsor: Allianz Championship presented by Administaff PGA Tour stop; AT&T Performing Arts Center, Dallas; Audubon Zoo;  Double-A Frisco Roughriders; Fort Lauderdale A1A Marathon & Half Marathon; Fox Theatre Atlanta; Hobby Center For the Performing Arts, Houston; Keeneland, Lexington, Kentucky; NBA Memphis Grizzlies; NHL Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins; Playhouse Square, Cleveland; Tri-City Medical Center Carlsbad Marathon, Calif.; United Center, Chicago; US Men’s Clay Court Championship ATP Tournament; Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia; Wells Fargo Center For The Arts, Santa Rosa, Calif.; Woodfield Mall, Schaumburg, Ill.

Additional Comments: Lexus has partnerships with Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance; Skip Barber Racing School and seven hotels. BankAtlantic Center includes naming rights to the venue’s ice rink. Added several new hotel partners in 2011 including The Allison Inn & Spa in Newberg, Ore. and the Bardessono hotel, restaurant and spa in Napa, Calif.  

Mercedes-Benz USA, LLC
3 Mercedes Dr.
Montvale, N.J. 07645

Lisa Holladay, national manager, experiential marketing

Sponsorship/Activation Strategy: Mercedes-Benz has significantly expanded its sponsorship portfolio over the past few years, most recently inking 10-year naming rights to the Louisiana Superdome. The deal follows three new multiyear ties with the James Beard Foundation, USTA US Open and PGA of America. Uses sponsorship to promote new vehicles and gain one-one-on marketing platforms. The company is placing more focus on social media. For example, MBUSA this year activated the US Open and endorsement deal with Roger Federer with a Twitter Rally that dangled free tickets and the chance to meet the tennis pro.

Current Deals: Corporate: Title: AMG Miami Beach Polo World Cup presented by Nespresso; Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week; Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans. Presenting: Farmers Classic ATP/USTA tournament.  Cosponsor: Amway Center; AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am; Charles Schwab Cup Championship PGA Tour stop.;  James Beard Foundation; PGA of America; USTA US Open; Dealers: Title: Mercedes-Benz Marathon Weekend, Birmingham, Ala.; Mercedes-Benz Polo Challenge Cup, Bridgehampton, N.Y.; Mercedes-Benz Wavefest, Los Angeles. Cosponsor: Aengus Finucane Memorial Golf Tournament, Darien, Conn.; AT&T National PGA Tour stop; Atlanta Steeplechase; Broward Center for the Performing Arts; California Center for the Arts, ECHL Charlotte Checkers; Louisville Orchestra.  

Additional Comments: Estimated 2010 sponsorship spend: $40 million to $45 million.

Volvo Cars of North America, LLC
1 Volvo Dr.
Rockleigh, N.J. 07647

Jay Hamill, manager, retail advertising and promotions

Sponsorship/Activation Strategy: Swedish import uses sponsorship to build visibility, engage consumers and drive sales through on-site test drives and incentive offers. Evaluates partnerships using a Six Sigma model, said Hamill. “All of our traditional sponsorships have positive ROI.” Recently inked branded entertainment tie-in with The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Pt.1 to reach young adult females. The company is activating the movie with two online promotions: The Journey to the Wedding promotion dangles a trip to Brazil and the car featured in the movie, while a Facebook contest offers tickets to the film’s premier. Volvo also partnered with the second and third Twilight movies and its vehicles have been featured in all four films. Volvo Cars is a unit of China-based Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd.

Current Sponsorships: Corporate: Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation; Big East Conference; Legoland California; MLB Boston Red Sox; Vail Valley Foundation. Dealers: Coldwell Banker Denver Century Ride Powered by The Mountain 99.5FM; Miami Symphony Orchestra; Opera Company of Philadelphia; Pittsburgh Symphony; Presbyterian Invitational Criterium.

Additional Comments: Vail Valley Foundation tie includes sponsorship of the American Ski Classic, Teva Summer and Winter Games and other events.