BEIJING (AdAgeChina.com) -- Mazda Motor Corp. has tapped American swimming sensation Michael Phelps to relaunch its Mazda 6 in China. Mr. Phelps, who won eight gold medals and broke seven world records at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, will be the brand spokesman for Mazda in the world's third-largest auto market.
Details of the deal were not disclosed, but the Japanese car giant will pay Mr. Phelps at least $1 million to promote the new car in Mazda's No. 1 growth market. The agreement is believed to mark the largest single sponsorship deal for a Western celebrity in China. Mr. Phelps earns an estimated $5 million per year from endorsement deals with companies such as swimsuit maker Speedo.
An older generation of the imported Mazda 6 sedan has been sold in China for the past three years and has grown into the company's flagship model in the mainland despite strong competition from rivals such as the Honda Motor Co.'s Accord. The new Mazda 6, renamed Rui Yi for the Chinese market, will be sold alongside the earlier version of the car, according to Automotive News China.
Increasingly important market
China is an increasingly important market for global automakers. The country is expected to overtake Japan as the world's second-largest auto market in 2009 and could overtake the U.S. at No. 1 by 2020. While sales in the U.S. and Japan are sluggish, they are continuing to grow in China, albeit at a pace that is slowing rapidly, a worrisome trend for the global auto industry.
China's passenger-vehicle sales fell to 522,800 units in November 2008, a 2.9% drop from the previous month and a 10.3% decline from the same period the year before. A total of 6.16 million cars were sold in the country between January and November 2008, an 8.87% increase, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.
Mazda sold 105,000 cars in China from January through October last year, up 27% year on year and 11% higher than the industry average in the same period. In the first seven months of 2008, the marketer sold 40,195 units of the current Mazda 6 sedan, a 43% year-on-year increase.
'Time to be aggressive'
Mazda's sponsorship deal with Mr. Phelps, a superstar in China, is "quite relevant because it shows where the [global car] market is at. I understand cutting back in other markets that aren't growing, but China is still growing. This is really the time to make more ground than you would normally. This is the best time to be aggressive," said Dan Mintz, the Shanghai-based CEO of Dynamic Marketing Group. The independent media and entertainment company orchestrated the deal through its DMG Entertainment division's offices in Los Angeles and Beijing. Another DMG division, D3, handles all advertising and media for Mazda in China.
Chinese consumers focused on local athletes during the lead-up to last year's Olympic Games, but Mr. Phelps' astounding performance was widely admired by Chinese. "His story and the height of his achievement is part of the height of China's achievement in modern times," Mr. Mintz said. "There is a huge connection there. Chinese took this individual and really made him one of their own."
Mr. Phelps will visit Beijing next week for the first time since the Olympic Games were held there last August to take part in a press conference and shoot TV and print ads for the new Mazda 6. The campaign will break when the car is rolled out this spring.