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Champions League: Why Nissan uses football for its sponsor goals

Gareth Bale of Real Madrid battles for the ball with Stefan Savic of Atletico Madrid during the 2016 UEFA Champions League Final Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Gareth Bale's Real Madrid will be looking to win a 12th European champions trophy this season

After the appetisers of the Champions League qualifiers, the tournament gets fully into the main course on Tuesday night with the start of the group stage.

Mouth-watering ties in the first round of matches include Barcelona v Celtic, Paris St Germain v Arsenal, and Manchester City v Borussia Moenchengladbach.

And for the eight brands who have paid millions to be official partners of the competition, it heralds the start of eight months of exposure around the world.

That exposure comes not only on billboards and on TV, but also via social media, competitions offering unique Champions League-related prizes, and through the use of former players as brand ambassadors.

'Global audience'

Japanese carmaker Nissan is one of the newer backers of the competition, having signed up in 2014 for four years as the global automotive partner.

So, at the halfway point in their deal, now seems a good time to ask: why did an East Asian firm seek a marriage with a European football competition?

"To raise awareness of the brand," Jean-Pierre Diernaz, vice president for marketing, Nissan Europe, tells me.

"We are a growing brand around the world, but with the exception of Japan, and possibly the US, we are a challenger brand.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Barcelona play Celtic in the opening round of group fixtures

"To go a step further we need to grow awareness. The Champions League has massive power in terms of views that it can give us."

He says this "view-ability" that the Champions League gives the company, enabling it to market itself to potential new customers, is crucial.

"It is probably the only competition in the world where every two weeks, we have a rendezvous on TV between the months of September and May," says Mr Diernaz.

"The World Cup only comes around every four years. We needed something where there was regular exposure. The event also allows us to engage with a global audience."

'Brand equity'

And Mr Diernaz says that all indicators are that their game-plan is paying off.

"It is working in terms of making sure our brand is growing," the Frenchman says.

He points out that since 2013, the year before the deal, and now, the company has steadily been moving up the ranks of the Interbrand Top 100 Best Global Brands.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Champions League means Nissan's name is seen around the world

"Our brand equity is going up. I am not saying that is all down to the Champions League - we have also created some new cars.

"But for sure this Champions League partnership has had a real power to impact on the brand."

'Crazy interest'

Mr Diernaz says that the primary impact of their partnership is obviously in Europe, where he says there has been an increase in awareness about Nissan in Spain, Italy and France.

"But the Champions League has a massive awareness and coverage in some other core regions for us, for example in Asia," he says.

"In China the interest is crazy. So that is a fantastic option for us to be there through the competition."

He says that other "football crazy" regions, such as South America and Mexico, are also examples of where the Champions League association can be a benefit.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Nissan believes football can help it grow its presence in China via the Champions League

"It is a powerful, phenomenal platform for us in Europe, and that power translates around the world," says Mr Diernaz.

So as the association seems to be fulfilling Nissan's goals, are there plans in the pipeline to extend the deal with Uefa beyond 2018?

"It is too early to say at this stage - during this season we are going to look at it," he says. "This season, season three for us, is a very good time for us to really optimise the partnership.

"We will then make an analysis about how we move forward. There is no specific date by which we must make a decision."

Sporting vehicles

In the past few years, not only with the Champions League partnership - but also things such a becoming a Premier League broadcast partner for Sky TV's coverage - Nissan has expanded its sports-related presence.

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Media captionRio Olympics: Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn has no doubts over sponsorship

This includes becoming a partner of the International Cricket Council (ICC) for eight years, and being a sponsor of the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Nissan also backs a number of national Olympic and Paralympic teams in South and Central America, and in Europe.

Meanwhile, it is the official global automotive partner of the Manchester City-led City Football Group, and the shirt sponsor of Yokohama Marinos, one of the four clubs in that grouping.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Nissan also sponsors top Japanese football club Yokohama Marinos

So has the company made a conscious decision to use sport as a marketing vehicle?

"It would be hard for me to say no, based on all those examples, that would feel illogical," says Mr Diernaz.

"We are very much an active, can-do brand, and want to do everything with energy and excitement.

"Sport is probably the best territory to express our company characteristics. I am not saying it is the only one, but probably the most logical one to embrace our values."

'Best of the best'

There have been various calls over the past year to create a new-format Champions League or European League, which is open only to the biggest elite clubs such as Real Madrid.

And last month Uefa created four automatic places in the lucrative group stages for teams from Europe's four biggest leagues - effectively Spain, England, Germany and Italy.

So does this potential "closed shop" and elitist connotation around the tournament not deter potential Nissan customers of modest means?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Nissan made a special Rio 2016 edition of its March car to mark its Olympic sponsorship

"When you look at the Champions League it has reached a point where it is super-powerful, very premium," agrees Mr Diernaz.

"But I think it has the same status as Wimbledon and Roland Garros have in tennis. In football and tennis there are many other tournaments, but there is always the recognised 'best of the best', which is what the Champions League is.

"However, that does not prevent new competition from coming in. You are going to have Leicester coming in from nowhere, they are going to fight against the big guys, that is exciting. Also in recent years we have had Atletico Madrid emerging.

"So the competition is definitely one we want to be engaged with. As a marketer, I believe in the integrity of the partnership."

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