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Marketer knows how to play game, from racing to teeing it up for Tiger; Chevy eyes baseball, Buick hits golf, Pontiac looks to NCAA and Cadillac goes for Super Bowl

Advertising Age , September 15, 2008

By Nick Lico

The link between General Motors Corp. and sports is almost as old as the company itself.

GM founder Billy Durant, ousted from his company in 1910, turned around and co-founded Chevrolet Motor Co. with race-car driver Louis Chevrolet and regained control of GM in 1916.

Racing and selling cars are a natural combination, but when your products range from the $11,000 Chevrolet Aveo to the $81,000-plus Cadillac XLR Roadster, you have to think farther afield. Chevrolet remains a fixture on racing circuits, but GM's sponsorships also encompass an array of other sporting activity.

GM says it races "because it's where we came from and because it fuels our love for competition. GM has remained in racing for two basic reasons-to win on the track and win in the marketplace.''

Mark Kent, director of GM Racing, sees a set of pillars "that support GM's total business approach to racing.'' Among those reasons is that racing is a sport that's all about the product, with passionate fans who buy cars and trucks at a higher rate than average consumers.

Competitions in which GM vehicles race include the American LeMans Series, NHRA Powerade, NASCAR Sprint Cup, NASCAR Craftsman Truck, NOPI Drag Racing, Hummer Racing and Grand-Am Rolex.

While racing appeals to many Americans, the allure of the Super Bowl to Cadillac is the opportunity to bask in the glow of the most-viewed spectacle on TV.

Cadillac has been the official vehicle of the Super Bowl since 2002. The arrangement enables Cadillac to promote its vehicles in a variety of ways, including exposure at National Football League events and parties, and via advertising on superbowl.com.

The deal also allows Cadillac to sponsor the game's MVP presentation, during which the most valuable player has the option to choose the Cadillac model of his preference.

Cadillac has long used the NFL's big game to make big ad statements.

The Escalade SUV debuted during the 1999 Super Bowl. Cadillac's "Break Through'' campaign launched during the 2002 edition of the big game. It broke the mold with five-second commercials for the V-Series during the 2005 event. And a Super Bowl spot featuring an Escalade on a fashion runway even prompted an unhappy Cadillac to change ad agencies in 2006.

In 2002, GM exec Mark LaNeve, then Cadillac general manager, described the brand's NFL relationship as a "one-of-a-kind opportunity to match America's premier luxury vehicle, Cadillac, with this country's most popular, prestigious, highly anticipated and widely viewed sporting event, the Super Bowl.''

Cadillac has since added official vehicle designation for the Pro Bowl.

Links to golf

The other premier pastime in GM's sports marketing portfolio is golf, with Buick taking the lead role.

"The PGA Tour credits Buick as its first corporate sponsor, and we believe the Buick Open was one of the first events in any sport to be named for a corporate sponsor,'' said Larry Peck, manager of golf marketing for Buick. "It's a perfect sport for marketing our cars.''

The Buick Open celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. Buick also hosts the Buick Invitational and participates as the official car of the PGA Tour (since 1984) and PGA Championship (since 2002).

But Buick's biggest splash in golf may have occurred when it signed up a young phenom as an endorser in 2000. That would be the No. 1 golfer in the world: Tiger Woods.

"The association with one of the premium brands in the world is a way for Buick to distinguish itself, and I think that works for them. Having Tiger Woods endorse Buick reinforces the self-confidence of someone who may be considering a Buick purchase. It validates their decision,'' said Don Hinchey, VP-communications at Bonham Group, a sports and entertainment marketing company.

The deal also gives the division, with a reputation for appealing to older consumers, a chance to attract a younger crowd (of course, the product line has also been revamped to attract more youthful consumers). Buick has built online promotions around Mr. Woods, including this year's "Tee-Off With Tiger,'' in which he will caddy for the promotion winner; in 2006, random promotion winners were given Mr. Woods' Lucerne courtesy car after a victory by the golfer.

Cadillac also has been heavily involved with golf. In the 1970s, Cadillac used Arnold Palmer to promote its vehicles and offered the Arnold Palmer Signature trim level on some of its vehicles. Cadillac has sponsored a number of high-profile golfers including Lee Trevino, Fred Couples and Michelle McGann. Also, Cadillac for several years was one of only a handful of sponsors during The Masters tournament telecast. Cadillac's golf tournament sponsorships nowadays are limited to local or regional events.

Chevrolet makes good on its ad claim of being as American as "baseball, hot dogs [and] apple pie'' by having been an official Major League Baseball sponsor for nearly a quarter-century, starting in 1985. Today, as the game's official vehicle, Chevrolet receives exclusive category rights, as well as on-site signage and advertising during the All-Star Game, Division Series, League Championship Series and World Series.

"Both Major League Baseball and Chevrolet encapsulate the American spirit. We are proud to partner with a premier sports property that offers such a strong and diverse following,'' said Steve Tihanyi, general director of marketing alliances and regional operations for GM.

As part of the agreement, Chevrolet is the presenting sponsor of the Ted Williams All-Star Game Most Valuable Player Award and the World Series Most Valuable Player Award. The MVP of each event is presented with the Chevrolet vehicle of his choice.

Through its vehicle divisions, GM has had relationships with MLB clubs including the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates.

In college sports, GM has been a member of the NCAA corporate marketing program since 1987. Pontiac, as the official performance vehicles of the NCAA, has been involved in basketball and football, including "Pontiac Game Changing Performance'' of the year scholarship awards tied to the college football season and basketball's March Madness finals. The March Madness online video programming drew 4 million viewers in 2006, and Pontiac has benefited as the brand continues to develop its online offerings. For instance, the Torrent SUV launch was timed for the NCAA basketball tournament.

Teaming with USOC

On the world stage, Chevrolet and Buick were early backers of the Olympics, with Chevy first supporting the U.S. team at the Winter Olympics in 1980 and Buick being the exclusive auto sponsor and official car of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. With the 2008 Beijing Games, GM has wrapped up another year as an Olympic sponsor, though doubts have been raised about its future involvement with the Games.

GM in 1997 signed a landmark multiyear package deal with the U.S. Olympic Committee and NBC in which the automaker spent $300 million to be the official domestic car and truck sponsor of the U.S. Olympic Team and $600 million for domestic auto exclusivity on NBC and its affiliates' TV and online coverage through 2008.

Four years ago, GM announced it had extended and enhanced its sponsorship as the official automotive partner of the U.S. Olympic Team.

At the time, Mr. LeNeve, who that year was named GM's VP-marketing and advertising for North America, said: "GM has a decades-long history of supporting the U.S. Olympic Team and individual American athletes. We continue to be dedicated to helping them compete and be the best in the world through our USOC sponsorship.''

That dedication seems to be ebbing, however, since GM announced last year that 2008 would be "the final year of USOC partnership at the current level.''

"Our marketing strategies have changed, and our media landscape has changed,'' a GM spokeswoman told Advertising Age, adding that GM has found ways to reach the same audience with more flexibility and frequency than the Olympics, which are staged every two years.

GM revisiting its USOC partnership is unexpected, said William Chipps, senior editor at IEG Sponsorship Report.

"Given the difficult environment that GM is in, it's understandable though a surprise,'' Mr. Chipps said.

"The Olympics are the pinnacle of sponsorship, and it allows GM to associate itself with the [Olympic] rings ... with the best of the best,'' he said. "GM has been such a major force in the Olympics that this might be indicative of the larger issues they face.''

Then again, perhaps indicators of this shift in direction have been there for years.

"It seems like five years ago, GM was issuing a press release announcing a new sport sponsorship initiative on a frequent basis,'' Mr. Chipps said.

"Obviously, sports marketing continues to play a role in their marketing initiatives, but there haven't been all that many deals lately,'' he noted. "I believe this is a reflection of the overall economy and the state of the automotive industry in general.'