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Interview with Ben Freidson, Manager of Sports Marketing at Volkswagen

Ben Freidson is the Manager of Sports Marketing at Volkswagen of America Inc.  Recently, Volkswagen announced a multi-year partnership renewal with Major League Soccer and Soccer United Marketing, MLS’s marketing arm, to remain MLS’s Official Automotive partner.

Michael Goldman: Can you briefly discuss your role as Manager of Sports Marketing and your background that led to you to joining Volkswagen?

Ben Freidson: My role is to identify potential sports sponsorships that align well with our marketing and communications strategy. Once we enter into an agreement, our emphasis is to try and leverage the sponsorship at all levels of the organization.

My background is in Business and Sports Management. At one time I worked for D.C. United in their corporate sponsorships division. More recently, I was working for a sponsorship activation agency, Cenergy Communications. At Cenergy, I worked with both corporations like Mentholatum’s OXY and Dial’s Right Guard Xtreme on their sponsorships of the Dew Action Sports Tour as well as with professional teams with the Cleveland Cavaliers/Lake Erie Monsters and the Buffalo Bills.

Michael Goldman: Volkswagen of America Inc. recently announced the renewal of their partnership with Major League Soccer and Soccer United Marketing after a successful first year.  What aspects of the partnership’s initial year pushed Volkswagen to seek a multi-year renewal?

Ben Freidson: Throughout the brand, we are focusing on creating conversations with new, broader and more diverse audiences.  Major League Soccer has strong relationships with loyal soccer fans that are aware of the Volkswagen brand and also are familiar with our global commitment to the sport.  This partnership provides our team with a multi-platform vehicle to engage these important US consumers in a whole new way. Our experiential programs and webisode series for last year’s Road to MLS Cup was positively received by fans and generated good online awareness.  We want to do more to engage the fans.

Michael Goldman: Describe the national grassroots programming that Volkswagen plans to develop with MLS and SUM.

Ben Freidson: I can’t get into the specifics of our new grassroots initiatives for the upcoming season quite yet, but I can tell you that we will look to leverage Volkswagen and Major League Soccer assets to showcase the value of our brand in a meaningful way to consumers. Our biggest need is to get consumers more familiar with our product offerings. We have several vehicles that are a perfect fit for the active soccer family and we launched 5 new vehicles last year including the Routan, Tiguan and CC. Event marketing is a great way for us to educate consumers and have a deeper conversation about Volkswagen and our cars.

We will use media, events and the Web to make sure we’re making the right connections, early and often.

In addition to new grassroots initiatives, we will be a sponsor of existing MLS grassroots initiatives including MLS Futbolito and Sueno MLS, which are both fantastic ways to connect with our Spanish speaking fans.

Michael Goldman: MLS is in an expansion mode still, as well as diligently trying to expand its fan base in the U.S.  As MLS grows, hopefully Volkswagen’s presence in the U.S. will grow too as a result of this partnership.  What are the specific areas of growth or demographic additions that Volkswagen is hoping to attain as a result of the partnership with MLS?

Ben Freidson: As the MLS grows its fan base, the partnership generates tremendous visibility with key US consumers including the Hispanic community, families and the endemic soccer fan, all of whom are very important audiences and customers bases for Volkswagen.  Through our activations, consumers have the opportunity to try out new vehicles and see products in person and hands-on in a way that they might not otherwise have experienced.

Michael Goldman: Volkswagen has been a long-time supporter of soccer on a global level.  This partnership shows Volkswagen’s substantial investment and support for soccer in the U.S.  What fraction of Volkswagen of America Inc.’s resources for sports marketing is dedicated to MLS?  What other American sports is Volkswagen involved with?

Ben Freidson: We’re committed to strategic investments in sports marketing because of its ability to deliver strong value messages and build long-term relationships with key audiences. The primary focus of our strategy lies in the sport of soccer however we do have additional sports sponsorships in our portfolio. We are involved in the Chicago and Pittsburgh Marathons in the Midwest region. In addition we are the official automobile of the Washington Wizards and Verizon Center.

Michael Goldman: While Volkswagen is the official automotive partner of MLS, it is also a partner of the D.C. United club.  In addition, the German football club VFL Wolfsburg plays in the Volkswagen Arena.  Do you envision Volkswagen buying the naming rights of a specific MLS club’s stadium at any point in the future?

Ben Freidson: We will continue to explore strategic fits for the brand on a case by case basis. It is great to see soccer specific stadiums launching across the country as it only strengthens the league for the long term.

Michael Goldman: What advice would you give to college students for trying to break into the sports marketing world or other areas related to sports-business?

Ben Freidson: Keep an open-mind to different opportunities such as internships that help you get a foot in the door. Think broadly – brands, agencies, media corporations and teams all need young, well-rounded and diverse team members. Also, while the sports field is exciting to focus on each day, you cannot forget that it’s called “sports business” for a reason.  Especially in these times, working hard to make the connection from program and sports engagements back to communications goals, sales, results and bottom line is critical.  It’s the reason why brands leverage the power of sports.  Demonstrating that you understand the business side well could make you stand out as a candidate.

There are different routes into the sports business field, remember to stay optimistic and display your commitment and passion for making a difference.