Car Manufacturers Stake Out Beaches, But Should We Be Worried?

Consider this: in 2001, General Motors’ advertising budget topped 2.8-billion dollars. By some estimates, GM’s marketing budget eclipses the total size of the surf industry. Now that the mainstream has rekindled its love for the beach, surf groups are soliciting car makers and other big businesses for sponsorship dollars. They figure the timing’s right — and corporate America’s got deep pockets.

Over the past few years, the list of car manufacturers participating in surf events has grown longer. Honda was a presenting sponsor at this year’s annual H20 Winter Classic, Ford continues to sponsor the Triple Crown of Surfing, Nissan has sponsored the XXL, and Chevy has sponsored a number of surf contests. Last year DaimlerChrysler produced 1,000 special-edition Ron Jon-badged PT Cruisers for the Florida market, and in 2001 Roxy endorsed a special version of Toyota’s econo-box Echo car.

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Many partnerships between surf groups and car makers continue. Subaru is a key sponsor of the PSTA and provides the series operational vehicles. Jeff Grell, executive director of the PSTA, says it would be difficult to run his contest series as successfully if Subaru weren’t on board. “Our hope is that Subaru’s going to continue to invest in our program and make it stronger and better,” he says. “If we do our job right, they’re happy and we continue.”

Chevy has taken its beach-participation initiative a step farther. In 1999, it inked an agreement with Huntington Beach for beach exclusivity. Per agreement, Chevy gives the city trucks for use by Huntington Beach lifeguards, and in exchange HB recognizes Chevy as “Official Automotive Sponsor of Huntington Beach.”

“We appreciate the assistance we’ve had from Chevy,” says Huntington Beach Acting Marine Safety Chief Kyle Lindo. “We get twenty vehicles from Chevy, and without them it would be tough for us to operate.”

The partnership, estimated to be worth 500,000 dollars in trucks and SUVs, runs through the end of 2003. Unless the city and Chevy approve beach access for a competing manufacturer, Chevys are the only trucks you’ll see on the sand. (Nissan has a similar arrangement with Los Angeles County beaches.)

It’s the exclusivity clause in the contract that has drawn criticism from some who work with competing car makers. Vipe Desai, president of marketing agency Propaganda Headquarters, says the exclusivity deal jeopardizes future sponsorship opportunities between beach events and car makers. He says the agreement could prevent other car makers from sponsoring beach events, because if they can’t showcase their cars on the beach, manufacturers might not see there’s enough value in the sponsorship, and they may take their marketing money elsewhere.

“If Chevy has a ?lockout’ on Southern California beaches, it creates a lack of opportunities for them {competing manufacturers} to get involved with consumers on the beach and therefore could keep dollars from coming into this industry,” argues Desai, who is currently working with Honda to find sponsorship opportunities for its new boxy Element SUV.

But the notion of exclusivity is nothing new. “Toyota has rights of the Staples Center and the Lakers, and Ford has exclusive rights at Mammoth Mountain,” says Chevrolet Promotions Manager Tracey Pimpare. “If this relationship were harmful to the city, the city would not agree to it. Chevrolet has been happy to work with the city in the cases where a competitive automotive company wants to sponsor an event at the city beach and the city finds the event important to the economic well-being of the city. We rely on Huntington Beach to determine which events these are.”

Why is securing beach exposure important to big businesses like Chevy? According to Pimpare, Chevrolet wants to get its product in front of a large number of consumers and develop increased opinion for its trucks and SUVs. The auto maker also wants to create a clear and consistent message and have brand recognition over a long period of time. Pimpare would not quantify the benefits from its exclusivity agreement with Huntington Beach.

Some event organizers like Grell aren’t bothered by the beach-exclusivity arrangement. “Until somebody else is willing to step up and put that kind of commitment behind it, I think they {Chevrolet} deserve the respect of anybody who goes there,” he says. “There certainly shouldn’t be any bashing going on.”

Last July Grell hosted a PSTA contest at the end of Golden West street in Huntington Beach. Although he couldn’t put Subarus on the beach, it wasn’t a huge setback for Grell: he simply arrived early and parked his fleet of PSTA-logoed Imprezas and Bajas on the street in front of the contest.