- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

D.C. United fans are used to seeing the Volkswagen logo. Now Major League Soccer fans across the country will see more of it.

Volkswagen this week announced a four-year extension of its sponsorship of MLS, a deal that will increase the company’s visibility in stadiums, online and in game broadcasts.

The German automaker, which has U.S. operations based in Herndon, said it will continue to sponsor the MLS MVP award, All-Star Game and MLS Cup while expanding its presence at the grass-roots level.

Volkswagen made a big splash in the District last year when it became the official automaker of D.C. United as one of the first companies to place its logo on an American team’s jerseys. Officials said the company is closely following news of a potential stadium deal for the team and would be open to pursuing possible sponsorship rights there.

Volkswagen had a one-year sponsorship of MLS last year but held off renewing until it could gauge reaction to marketing efforts surrounding the MLS Cup. The company last season created six online commercials featuring a mother driving players and the MLS Cup trophy around the country in a Routan minivan. The spots were well-received and garnered a lot of Internet attention for the company.

Volkswagen is one of just a handful of automakers that are still spending money on high-profile sponsorships, even as sales have declined because of the economy.

“Most brands out there are spending almost their entire budgets on very hard-core tactical media and messages, and there’s very little room for any branding or any long-term message,” said Tim Ellis, vice president of marketing for Volkswagen USA. “I think we’re having a lot of success delivering not only good, strong, compelling retail messages, but we’re also simultaneously building a brand.”

Ellis said Volkswagen cars have historically had high rates of ownership loyalty but are not as visible in the marketplace as other brands. The MLS sponsorship includes opportunities for fans to try out new vehicles and see products that they might not otherwise have tested.

It seems logical that Volkswagen would be familiar to American soccer fans, many of whom probably follow European teams and would be aware of the company’s support of German club VfL Wolfsburg. But company officials said the sponsorship also would resonate among Hispanic fans, who compose about 30 percent of MLS supporters. Volkswagen is a wildly popular brand in Latin and South America and rates very high in the Hispanic community in the United States.

“Major League Soccer continues to be an emerging sport, and for us it’s very important for us to tie it to the global brand,” Ellis said. “The types of people who go and attend soccer and like to follow soccer know about the global game. Therefore, it’s a stronger emotional tie to the Volkswagen brand.”

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