November 15, 2008 / 5:54 AM / in 9 years

Rapper Nelly helps Ford Flex its muscle

<p>Rapper Nelly poses at the 2008 BET Awards in Los Angeles, California in this file photo from June 24, 2008.Fred Prouser</p>

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Hip-hop entrepreneur Nelly has a marketing partnership of sorts with Ford.

He doesn't appear in any TV ads for the automaker. And you won't find him in Ford's print or radio ads.

But it's clear that Nelly loves the Ford Flex, a crossover vehicle that the company introduced earlier this year. In early November, he appeared at the Specialty Equipment Market Assn. Show, a custom car event held in Las Vegas, to show off the tricked-out Flex he'll feature in his video for "Let It Go." Any attention he generates will give a marketing boost to Ford, although it isn't clear how that would help him.

Ford's ties with Nelly are just one element in the company's marketing efforts for the Flex, which are aimed at catching the attention of people who had never expressed an interest in buying a Ford. Before the Flex's U.S. debut, Ford also gave DJ Funkmaster Flex his own customized version, which he drove to various public events. The automaker also held private events in New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta to give artists and music industry executives a chance to check out the car. And it made sure that two were parked outside Jermaine Dupri's Ford-sponsored So So Def Summerfest Weekend Celebrity Bowling Tournament.

Usha Raghavachari, a Ford marketing and communication manager, says such promotions aren't meant to come across as advertising. There's value, she says, in simply showing that Nelly likes the Flex.

"I'm not sure we would take him into advertising," Raghavachari says. "It makes it seem less real and authentic."

While Buzz Marketing Group CEO Tina Wells believes a red-hot star like Chris Brown might be a better fit for the Flex than Nelly, she agrees that there's value in word-of-mouth marketing.

"I was listening to an urban radio station this morning and they mentioned the Nelly car," Wells says. "So there's always value in attaching a name to a product."

But this begs a question: How much value is there for Nelly in attaching his name to Ford?

Nelly and his music don't appear in any Ford ads. And he doesn't receive any endorsement money -- except for the car itself.

Ford is also using conventional TV advertising to market the vehicle. In ads that began running this summer, Ford featured music by eclectic singer/songwriter Santogold.

The ads provided Santogold with valuable exposure, not to mention licensing revenue she received for use of her music. By contrast, Nelly received neither for giving the Flex his stamp of approval.

Might such informal marketing ties risk diluting the value of official endorsement deals that Nelly has with other leading brands like Nike and Sean Jean? The rapper did not respond to interview requests. But this approach certainly makes sense for Ford, providing a low-cost means of brand building at a time of deep financial uncertainty for the U.S. auto industry.

Reuters/Billboard

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