Nissan Drives Sentra SE-R Into Xbox

NEW YORK Nissan had a dilemma: how to market a car that might sell only 10,000 units over the course of the year. While in the past the Sentra SE-R might not rate much marketing of its own, it is now the star of a videogame effort.

Nissan hooked up with Microsoft to integrate the SE-R into the popular Xbox game “Forza Motorsport 2.” In addition to in-game placements like billboards on race tracks and a course named after Nissan, Xbox is offering players a “car pack,” available through the Xbox Live Marketplace, that allows users to download Nissan cars, including the SE-R, and customize them to compete in a racing tournament.

The effort is illustrative of the way new digital outlets are opening affordable marketing opportunities for products that might otherwise not have been deemed worth the expense of using traditional media like television.

“We’re in a situation that’s no different than most marketers,” said Melissa Adams, senior manager of media at Nissan. “Our budgets aren’t growing, but the breadth of the portfolio is growing.”

A niche model like the SE-R retails for about $20,000 and has an audience that tends to skew toward young males. The affordability of the in-game integration, along with the demographic match, made the program an attractive fit, Adams said. She declined to specify Nissan’s spending on the project.

“This is really our first initiative that recognizes we cannot always use traditional media to reach our targets,” she said. “We have to learn to do things differently.”

“Forza Motorsport 2” is a follow-up to the breakout hit game that sold more than 1 million copies. Since its release in May, Microsoft has sold 414,000 units, per NPD.

Nissan is holding an SE-R racing tournament starting later this month that it hopes will draw over 30,000 participants. The finals will be held Nov. 16-25 at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The company is also sponsoring a SE-R customization contest, awarding prizes for the most creative virtual paint jobs on the model.

Weaving a brand into a game requires a long lead time: Omnicom Group’s OMD began working with game developer Turn 10 at the beginning of last year. Yet these types of deep integrations available to carmakers in auto games makes them an ideal vehicle for reaching young males, said Dario Raciti, gaming leader at OMD. While in-game ads are interesting ways to extend reach, they’re not nearly as effective as having gamers take a virtual spin in a model, he said.

“This was more about letting people interact with the car, letting people drive it,” he said. “It’s more than watching an impression on a Web site or 30-second spot and ending it there.”

Adams predicts more instances of carmakers considering digital channels as the main marketing vehicles for products as they produce models geared to specific audiences, rather than units designed for mass appeal.

“It’s going to become increasingly prevalent because everyone is launching cars [that sell] from 25,000-50,000 units and it’s very hard from the scalability of traditional media to use TV to find those audiences efficiently,” she said.