Volkswagen Plans Major World Cup Ad Push to Counter Hyundai

Ads for GTI Will go Head-to-Head Against Those From Official Auto Sponsor

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The 2015 Volkswagen GTI
The 2015 Volkswagen GTI

Volkswagen is planning a major World Cup advertising push that will go head-to-head with that of official automotive sponsor Hyundai.

The global auto maker is making a major ad buy across ESPN, ABC and Univision to tout its GTI during coverage of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil this June, according to Volkswagen of America VP-Marketing Vinay Shahani, who was onhand at this week's New York International Auto Show.

Hyundai has served as FIFA's official automotive sponsor since 2002. Along with sibling Korean auto company Kia, Hyundai has locked up World Cup auto rights through 2022.

But VW believes that World Cup is the right audience to tout its performance-oriented GTI, Mr. Shahani said. The model is especially popular with younger males and Hispanic consumers. A huge number of Hispanic viewers -- key drivers of GTI sales in the States -- tune in every four years for World Cup.

"The alignment between who watches the World Cup -- and who drives a GTI -- is perfect. That's a match made in heaven for us," said Mr. Shahani, here at the New York International Auto Show.

VW's lead ad agency, Deutsch, Los Angeles, is working on World Cup ads. Hispanic shop COD, Miami, is working on Spanish-language ads. The coordinated campaign will break around the official start of the 2014 World Cup on June 12. The quadrennial event will take place all over Brazil through July 13.

Mr. Shahani said the campaign won't be just a "pure" TV play. "There's going to be TV advertising. But we're going to be heavy in digital as well and social media. When we're watching sports, we're not just watching the TV any more. We've got our iPhone and iPad at the same time."

ESPN ($100 million) and Univision ($325 million) forked over an estimated $425 million for American TV rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. Fox Sports and Spanish-language network Telemundo spent a record $1 billion on TV rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

Depending on who you ask, the German-based Volkswagen Group ranks as the world's second or third largest auto maker, along with Toyota and General Motors. In the U.S., the VW division's sales dropped 3% in March and 11% over the first three months of 2014, according to the Automotive News Data Center.

Other Notes From the Auto Show
Meanwhile, Don Draper himself, actor Jon Hamm of AMC's Mad Men, showed up at the Auto Show to help unveil Mercedes-Benz USA's new S63 AMG 4MATIC Coupe (Mr. Hamm does voice-overs for Mercedes commercials).

GM CEO Mary Barra was hounded by a rabid press pack over GM's recall of faulty ignition switches that have been linked to a dozen deaths. There was even a camera crew from "60 Minutes" stalking Ms. Barra at one point.

But marketing executives at other auto makers are focused more on their own issues than the recall that's overshadowing GM's very real improvement in products and performance. Here's a rundown on what they're focusing on for the rest of this year:

Movie product placements
The Chevrolet Camaro will again have a co-starring role in "Transformers: Age of Extinction," opening June 27. "It will be a huge play for us in Asia," said Tim Mahoney, Chevrolet's global CMO. "The following of Transformers in China, in particular, is off the charts. They expect great things there."

The yellow and black "Bumblebee" Camaro, as well as other models, have been featured in all four Transformers films. Chevy just scored a marketing coup by having Marvel Studios rewrite the script for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" to have Scarlett Johansson's "Black Widow" character drive a black-on-black Corvette Stingray.

Product placement "is an important part of what we do," said Mr. Mahoney.

Separately, Mercedes will have a co-starring role in an upcoming feature film, said Drew Slaven, VP-marketing. But he declined to name the flick. Other automakers such as Ford, which placed its new Ford Mustang in Aaron Paul's racing thriller "Need for Speed," have been stepping up their product-placement activities in Hollywood. Mr. Slaven expects the trend to heat up this year as automakers try to reach younger audiences, especially a millennial generation that's proven fairly resistant to the American love-affair with cars.

"What we know about Generation Y is they have a strong proclivity to want to associate with products that play a role in movies that are important to them. That's probably always been the case. But I think what's happening now is marketers have caught on to that."

More storytelling
Trudy Hardy, VP-marketing for BMW of North America, said the luxury automaker is "going to return to storytelling" with more "halo advertising." She cites the commercials that BMW ran during NBC's coverage of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic as the kind of work that go beyond running footage of cars on winding roads. "I'm not downplaying the fact that there will still be tactical ads we produce. But we need to re-balance our advertising," she said.

She's also planning to boost BMW's experiential marketing budget: "We certainly know when we get people behind the wheel, one in four people ultimately buy the car."

Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal & Partners handles BMW's creative.

All of the marketers have seen Cadillac's controversial "Poolside" commercial from Rogue, Detroit, in which actor Neil McDonagh thumps his chest about good old American values while seeming to insult the entire continent of Europe.

The spot has divided the political Left and Right, with radio host Rush Limbaugh praising the ad and other critics bashing its Ugly American message.

But Subaru of America CMO Dean Evans doesn't believe in the old adage that there's no such thing as bad PR. "Yes, there is. Just because people are talking about it does not mean it's necessarily good that people are talking about it."

On the other hand, luxury brands such as Cadillac have more room for error in this area, because exclusivity is "part of their allure," said Mr. Evans.

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