SAN FRANCISCO -- In the hours before the National Football League season opener on Sept. 10, thousands of tourists streamed through Pier 35 to pose for selfies with the Vince Lombardi trophy and have their jerseys autographed by NFL stars.
The walls were covered with well-known logos. Microsoft and McDonald's. Verizon and Visa. Bud Light and Snickers. Among them was a newcomer: Hyundai.
In June, the Korean automaker inked a four-year deal with the NFL, replacing General Motors as automotive sponsor of America's most-watched sports league.
After a quarter-century of selling cars in the U.S., Hyundai has improved its products and its business enough that it sees itself in the same league with Honda and Toyota. With the start of football season, Hyundai is spending big to show it belongs there.
"The bigger and more costly the platform, the more you have to focus on it as a company to make sure you get a return on your investment," Dean Evans, who was hired in August as CMO of Hyundai Motor America, told Automotive News. "Over the course of the partnership, we'll look at our positive sentiment numbers and make sure it's giving us a lift. Hopefully, at the end of the day, we're selling more cars."
Hyundai's first NFL-theme TV ad features an Arizona Cardinals fan and his Hyundai Tucson.
Over the past few years, the NFL has suffered black eye after black eye. The league has faced allegations that it downplayed and covered up research on head trauma among former players. It has struggled to respond to domestic violence incidents involving several of its biggest stars, as well as a cheating scandal involving four-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady. Yet the league has never been more popular or profitable, making it irresistible to consumer-facing companies such as Hyundai.
During the event at Pier 35, next to a gold-wrapped Hyundai Tucson and a carnival game in which passersby tried to throw a football through a hole in exchange for prizes, Hyundai posted a banner: "Hyundai Goes Pro."
That day, Hyundai also presented a free concert in downtown San Francisco with pop musicians Train and Ellie Goulding. Pedestrians who couldn't make it into the plaza for the concert stood outside on concrete planters, extending their arms to take photos and videos for social media apps such as Instagram and Snapchat.
Above them on a balcony and observing the spectacle was Harry Han, a Korean dispatch who oversees Hyundai's U.S. business as chief executive coordinator. Evans was in Seoul, getting live updates via email.
"We were really happy with the number of people showing up and taking pictures and sharing pictures," Evans said. "We're really fixated on getting this brand more love than ever before. To do that, you've got to meet people and engage with people."
The sprint to September
After the NFL deal was announced in June, Hyundai's marketers in the U.S. quickly discovered that there was a lot of work left to do. For example, the deal didn't include any teams or athletes. What good is the NFL logo if you can't show any football players?
Luckily for Hyundai, the brand's regional dealer associations already had sponsorship deals with the Arizona Cardinals and Houston Texans, Trea Reedy, senior group manager of experiential marketing at HMA, said in an interview.
This fortunate fact explains why the Cardinals featured prominently in Hyundai's first NFL-theme TV spot, in which a man irritates his wife by tearing out a piece of their picket fence to use as a prop for his "defense" chant at the stadium.
Looking forward, Hyundai will focus its branding efforts on the Super Bowl and the NFL Draft. However, the company doesn't expect to award a new car -- say, a Genesis luxury sedan -- to the winner of the Most Valuable Player award at the Super Bowl, an annual custom when GM held the sponsorship. Reedy said the NFL has not offered Hyundai that opportunity.
"It's not that we didn't want it," Reedy said. "It could be something that we talk about in the future, but right now it's not there."