NASHVILLE -- It may look like fun and games to some people, but this year's release of Sony's Gran Turismo 6 will be big marketing business for Nissan.
Brand managers say the video racing game has been a gold mine for Nissan in recent years. Gran Turismo's current generation, which allows gamers to download virtual versions of the Nissan GT-R and 370Z and other models to simulate racetrack driving, has resulted in 40 million hours of virtual Nissan-brand test driving so far.
"That's a crazy amount of seat time in a Nissan product," says Mike Awdish, senior manager of marketing communications for the project and himself a gamer.
Nissan sees the video game as a branding tool to reach young people and auto enthusiasts with the message that Nissan builds performance cars. Some 1,200 downloadable competitor cars will be available in Gran Turismo 6, including an increased number of Nissan models.
"That's going to be especially important this year as we reintroduce our Nismo performance brand and bring out more Nismo models," Awdish says.
The game has additional marketing benefits, he says.
"It's not just a game," Awdish says. "It's a simulated test drive."
This summer, Nissan and Sony will sift through thousands of U.S. player results in an advanced online demo of the upcoming game to qualify the 32 fastest performances. Those 32 will be winnowed to 16 for international competition and put through real-car racing training at England's Silverstone Circuit raceway at the automaker's expense. The best trainees will become part of Nissan's real-life international racing team.
To get still more mileage from the marketing effort, last year's Gran Turismo competition was captured on film and turned into "GT Academy," a reality TV series featuring Nissan that ran on Spike TV and MTV. Awdish says the reality series garnered 7 million viewers.