May 31, 2012 / 4:08 PM / 6 years ago

GM signs on as Manchester United's auto sponsor

DETROIT (Reuters) - The world’s largest automaker has jilted America’s Super Bowl for the global variety of football.

General Motors Co has signed on as the automotive sponsor of the world’s most popular soccer club, Manchester United, in an attempt to cement Chevrolet as a global brand.

Terms of the five-year deal, announced in Shanghai on Thursday, were not disclosed. GM is hoping to piggyback on Manchester United’s fan base of an estimated 659 million people to boost its Chevy brand, especially in such growing Asian car markets as China, where the soccer club has 108 million fans.

“If our aspirations are to build global icon status for Chevrolet ... soccer far and away is the world’s biggest sport,” Paul Edwards, GM executive director of global marketing strategy, said in an interview. “Manchester United stands head and shoulders above the other teams in terms of scale, brand value and their legacy in the sport.”

The announcement comes about two weeks after GM said it would drop ads both on Facebook, due to low consumer impact, and during next year’s Super Bowl broadcast, as the projected price tag -- $4 million per 30-second spot -- was too high.

GM has also consolidated its ad agencies globally in a move expected to save $2 billion over five years.

GM’s global marketing chief, Joel Ewanick, said he is squeezing costs in his budget where he can, but overall spending is not declining.

”There are no sacred lines in the budget,“ he said at the company’s Detroit headquarters. ”Everything’s got to prove to have value, including Facebook.

“You can’t say ‘Yes’ to everything,” Ewanick added. “It’s something we need to do from time to time to let people know the bar is not open.”

The new sponsorship is part of GM’s effort to improve its international marketing, which makes up about two-thirds of the overall marketing budget and has not been as strong as those of its rivals, Ewanick said. He added, however, that despite dropping plans to advertise during the Super Bowl, GM will remain one of the largest TV advertisers during National Football League games.

Edwards dismissed talk that GM was simply cutting costs and lacked a coherent marketing strategy. “They’re just normal course-of-business decisions that we make with any traditional media outlets.”

Edwards said other changes in marketing would be announced, but declined to provide details -- except that the focus now was on soccer. “There is a cadence of big global decisions coming forward,” he said.

Edwards said the Manchester United sponsorship deal shows GM is shifting its investments where they can do the most good for Chevy brand awareness and sales.

Starting on Friday, Chevy will be one of almost 30 corporate sponsors for Manchester United, replacing Audi as the English soccer club’s auto sponsor. Audi had been the team’s auto sponsor since April 2004.

Under the deal, the Chevy bow tie will appear on signs, scoreboards and player benches in the soccer club’s stadium as well as on backdrops and chairs during interviews, GM said. Chevy dealers globally also will be able to use the Manchester United logo at their stores.

Separately, Chevy also will sponsor two Manchester United matches in China this summer -- dubbed the Chevrolet China Cup. GM is a market share leader in China, which remains a key growth market for the U.S. automaker.

Manchester United’s larger sponsorship deals with insurance broker Aon, whose name appears on the team jerseys, and with sportswear maker Nike net it between $30 million and $40 million per year, according to sports marketing firm Navigate Research.

GM spent an estimated $170 million to $175 million on U.S. sponsorships, festivals and causes last year, down from $185 million to $190 million in 2010, according to IEG, a unit of WPP that tracks such spending.

GM spent $1.1 billion on U.S. ads last year, ranking it behind only Procter & Gamble Co and AT&T Inc, according to ad-tracking firm Kantar Media, also owned by WPP.

Overall, GM’s spending on advertising rose 5.2 percent last year to $4.48 billion, according to the automaker’ s annual report.

Edwards pointed out that Manchester United’s TV audiences easily outpace those of the Super Bowl, which annually ranks as the most watched TV program in the U.S. market with more than 100 million viewers.

Manchester United’s 2011 Champions League final against Barcelona was watched by about 350 million people, and even the average game draws 50 million globally, according to club officials.

Reporting By Ben Klayman; Editing by Gary Hill and Dan Grebler

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