Far from Wall Street's gaze, semi-trucks carry Chevrolet vehicles from village to village in rural China reaching for future car buyers who have never heard about baseball, hot dogs or apple pie.
A year after GM signed a $559-million sponsorship that will put the Chevrolet name on uniforms of Manchester United beginning next year, the deal is beginning to attract consumers in China.
The marketing deal drew the ire of investors who thought it was too expensive and led to the firing of GM Chief Marketing Officer Joel Ewanick after he did not disclose the full cost of the deal to CEO Dan Akerson.
More recently, Chevrolet has been at the core of rumors in the U.K. that ManU owner Malcolm Glazer will have GM pay some of a salary offer to lure back star player Christiano Ronaldo, whom ManU sold in 2009 to Real Madrid.
In China and throughout Asia, where the soccer team has 378 million fans, according to Kantar Media Compete, Chevy hopes that soccer can do for it in China what baseball did for it in the U.S.
"The point is for China, this is just a home run," said Richard Choi, director of Chevrolet marketing in China, in an interview at a Shanghai Chevrolet dealership. "Not to mix my metaphors."
"One of the reasons we've grown so fast is we have these road shows. It's essentially an auto show in a truck," Choi said. "We'll go out to these rural markets and we open up. It becomes like the thing to do in that city that day."
The road show sets up a kicking contest for kids, displays Manchester United gear and introduces Chevy to consumers who know nothing of GM's recent travails that culminated in the 2009 bankruptcy.
"You could almost think of it as a form of rebranding to say, 'We're not just an American brand, we're a global brand,' " said Stephen McDaniel, a University of Maryland professor who teaches sports marketing. "You have to redefine your brand to adapt to other markets."
Automakers sold 19.2 million vehicles in China last year, almost 5 million more than were sold in the U.S. That is expected to reach 30 million annually by the end of the decade. A large portion of those sales were in the largest cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.
But most new buyers will come from the country's interior, which is poorer, yet gradually gaining economic traction. Understanding local preferences and tailoring marketing accordingly is crucial.
For example, at the Dongchang Chevrolet dealership in Shanghai, customers come face to face with a huge Manchester United poster splashed across a wall.
Morningstar analyst David Whiston, who tracks GM's financial performance, said the Manchester United deal could prove to be successful "if you get Chevy customers onto a website."
But $559 million to get on the cultural radar is a high-stakes bet. Especially when the expectations of ManU fans are for nothing less than a world championship every year.
"I don't think it was a complete mistake," Whiston said. "Was it a lot of money? Yes. I think it still remains to be seen if it was worth the investment. If it continues to stay popular in China and they keep winning, then that's great for GM."
China is GM's biggest market, but it was Chevy's third-biggest market in 2012, behind the U.S. and Brazil. Choi said China would pass Brazil this year.
Chevy's market share in China was steady at 4.1% in 2011 and 4.2% in 2012, up from 2.4% in 2005, according to GM.
To reach more buyers in developing cities, Chevy is adding 45 dealers in China in 2013, which will expand the retail network to 665 selling points.
If Manchester United has an excellent year, there may be room for more growth.
Most Popular Stories
- Major Phone Makers Sign Anti-Phone-Theft Pledge
- 'Beige Book' Federal Reserve Survey, April 2014: Full Text
- College Board Offers a Sneak Peak at New SAT
- Yellen Remarks, Market Data Give Stocks a Boost
- Yahoo Struggles Despite Alibaba Boost
- Chevrolet's Small SUV Coming to the U.S.
- Is This Job Too Good to Be True?
- Neil Young Closes Kickstarter Campaign for PonoMusic
- Castro Named as a Caress Fabulista
- Rapper Cuts Off Own Penis, Jumps Off Building in Failed Suicide