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Volume 20 No. 42
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Nissan, VW ride on in cycling sans Armstrong

Lance Armstrong’s recent doping admission did not chase automakers and former Armstrong team sponsors Volkswagen and Nissan away from the sport. The brands, however, have both repositioned their cycling sponsorships around events instead of activating around teams or individuals.

Nissan partnered with Armstrong’s RadioShack pro team in 2010. In 2012, it took on co-title sponsorship of the team. After Armstrong’s doping revelation, Nissan abruptly ended its partnership, yanking its logos from the team jersey and trailer this past December. The automaker agreed to honor its financial commitment — valued by industry experts in the low seven figures annually — through the end of 2013.

Nissan saw opportunities sponsoring cycling events such as the Amgen Tour of California.
J Schaffer, senior marketing manager at Nissan North America, said Nissan decided not to pull out of cycling altogether because of the opportunities he saw at the Amgen Tour of California and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, which Nissan has sponsored since 2009 and 2011, respectively. Those deals are valued in the mid- to high six figures.

“There are too many people standing on the side of the road at these races to just walk away,” Schaffer said. “There was no serious talk of us ending the event sponsorship after everything went down last fall.”

At the May 12-19 Amgen Tour of California, the first major American race after Armstrong’s admission, Nissan became presenting sponsor of the King of the Mountain award, which goes to the race’s top climber. It also replaced its on-site trailer — which previously had showcased pro rider bios and videos of the team — with a consumer activation around the Versa Note, Pathfinder and Leaf car models. It purchased presenting sponsor rights for the first and seventh stages, which featured climbs up iconic California mountains. And 47 Nissan cars were driven by race officials, teams and VIP drivers throughout the event.

Schaffer said the automaker would bring similar infrastructure to three mass-participant amateur events as well: Oregon’s Cascade Gran Fondo, California’s Levi’s GranFondo and the Harpeth River Ride in Nashville. All three events attract more than 2,000 participants each year.

“It’s frustrating the sport has these issues it can’t get resolved,” Schaffer said. “It’s still a way to connect with people who don’t just watch the sport but they live it, too.”

Volkswagen’s relationships in cycling date to 1995, when it partnered with the Trek bicycle company. When Trek became the bicycle sponsor of Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team, Volkswagen also came on board, and its logo was displayed on Armstrong’s jersey in 1999, the year of his first Tour de France victory. It also sponsored Trek’s mountain bike racing team.

Clark Campbell, Volkswagen’s general manager of experiential marketing, said the company began shifting away from team and individual sponsorships in the late 2000s. It ended the mountain bike team in 2009. In 2012, it partnered with USA Cycling to title sponsor the U.S. national road and time trial championships. It also took on the participant-driven Sea Otter Classic event in California and the Copper Triangle ride in Colorado.

Campbell said the Armstrong controversy reinforced the brand’s strategy in cycling.

“It’s not like Volkswagen had to drop Lance Armstrong,” he said. “We endorse like-minded people who participate in cycling. They are not doping.”

At the 2013 USA Cycling National Championships, which ran May 25-27, Volkswagen promoted its “Think Blue” environmental campaign with a cycling game in which participants pedaled on stationary bikes to race electric cars along a track. It showcased the Passat, Jetta and Beetle models as pace cars during the race and as fan transportation vehicles throughout the weekend.

“It’s a more generic position in cycling,” Campbell said. “We want to be known for being innovative and responsible. Those are values our customers connect with.”

Fred Dreier is a writer in Colorado.