Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena was built on a foundation of corporate sustainability, starting with the naming rights from Amazon. Long before the $1.15 billion carbon-neutral arena opened last October, the view inside developer/operator Oak View Group was that auto brands, transitioning from internal combustion autos to electric vehicles, would be one of the easiest sponsorship sales; the new arena even has electric Zambonis resurfacing an ice surface made from frozen rainwater. Instead, autos were one of the last sponsorships sold, with hybrid pioneer Toyota signing on a few months before the arena opened.
“Every auto manufacturer said ‘no’ to us once,” said Dan Griffis, Oak View’s president of global partnerships. “Climate Pledge should have been the poster child for EVs and sustainability. But that’s the perfect example for me that we’re just not quite there yet with EVs.”
Last year, around 500,000 EVs were sold in the United States, increasing their U.S. market share to 4.5%. Six ads in the recent Super Bowl were dedicated EV commercials. GM brought Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil character out of mothballs. Chevy hired David Chase for a “Sopranos” reunion behind its Silverado EV. Arnold Schwarzenegger pitched for BMW’s iX; a robot dog pranced for Kia’s EV6; and Polestar did a no-frills ad. Even charger brand Wallbox joined the EV adfest.
Still, the biggest question in the auto industry is how long its EV transition will take. The corollary of when EV launch budgets will be pumping up sponsorship and experiential marketing budgets in sports is as clear as when the Detroit Lions will win a Super Bowl, and the favorite NFL team of America’s automakers has never won an NFC championship.
Supply-chain difficulties are constraining carmakers as much as any industry. The three top-selling vehicles in America last year were trucks from Ford, Dodge and Chevy. Truck purchasers and dealers are still concerned about EVs’ cold-weather performance.
Auto spending on sponsorships is locally governed. “Most of it gets funded by regional dealer groups and they’re still selling a lot of trucks,” said Griffis. “For dealers to spend a lot on sustainability would be difficult, and probably too early.”
With the Super Bowl as an example, automakers’ EV marketing spend will center on media for some time.
“The media we have telling our electric story is also telling our brand story of progress and optimism, so that’s where we’re directing the majority of our marketing dollars until we have more [EV] inventory,” said Maggie Mohiuddin, director of brand channel marketing at Audi of America. “COVID has really been limiting our experiential and sponsorship opportunities. As we move out of COVID, you’ll start seeing more.”
Genesco Sports handles various experiential and sponsorship marketing needs for BMW and GM.
“We’re all trying to figure out the EV tipping point,” said Genesco Senior Vice President Adam Buxbaum. “For now, they are something you can build brand awareness and image around.”
Since government spending will support consumer buying incentives for EVs, fund the retooling of factories for manufacturers of EVs, and underwrite a network of new charging stations, messages from auto brands are not squarely aimed at consumers.
“The EV market is more policy-driven than market-driven. So for now, it’s less about consumers and more about government and shareholders,” said Neil Howard, vice president and group director at MKTG, Toyota’s longtime motorsports agency. “It’ll be a while before you see EV displays at NASCAR races; there just isn’t a connection there yet for most consumers or a supply chain to get the product out.”
Given its history for spending, the car category was one of the first that properties craftily dissected. Import, luxury, domestic, truck — all have been sold separately. The debate is already raging as to whether EVs can be sold as separate categories.
“All the properties are wrestling with that, but I can’t see it,” said Craig Millon, chief client officer at GM’s experiential and event agency Jack Morton Worldwide. “Every manufacturer is transitioning to EVs, so who’s going to be interested in only buying rights for internal combustion?”
Griffis said there’s been “considerable discussion there already, but I don’t know any property that’s done that successfully.”
Certainly, there’s increasing demand among sponsors to spend on green platforms. However, for EV buyers, “It’s more about technology than the green factor,” said Angela Zepeda, CMO of Hyundai Motor America. “Consumers care about [green] but they’re not willing to sacrifice performance.”
The capital costs to convert one of America’s biggest industries are massive, and so are the EV growth projections. That helps to explain why EV pioneer Tesla, which had an imposing U.S. market share of 70% in 2021, has a market cap of $1.04 trillion, more than four times that of Toyota, the world’s largest automaker. Battery and charging companies are also remarkably well capitalized. Charging stations in stadium and arena parking lots are becoming more routine.
“[Team] owners and operations people know they need to put in chargers, and that’s a hard cost, so how do they pay for that?” said Peter LaPointe, vice president of brand partnerships and sponsorships at Volta, which has charging stations at the home venues of the Chicago White Sox, LA Galaxy, Oakland A’s and Texas Rangers. Volta’s formula is to sell out-of-home media from video screens on its charging stations.
Another potential flashpoint: Will charging stations conflict with legacy gasoline brand sponsorships?
In search of visibility and credibility, EV charging company Flo recently did more of a traditional sponsorship with NYCFC, even though the MLS team has little to deliver in terms of parking lot assets, since it will play “home” games in six venues this season. “We absolutely consider sustainability its own category now,” said Matt Goodman, the team’s COO/CCO. “If gas prices continue to increase, you’ll continue to see more activity there.”