Chevrolet is the fourth-largest automotive brand worldwide, but that isn’t reflected in its marketing, says Joel Ewanick, General Motors’ global chief marketing officer.

The first step toward rectifying that is a new 5-year deal announced today making Chevrolet the official automotive partner of Manchester United, one of the top football (soccer) teams in the U.K.’s Barclays Premier League.

The agreement includes the creation of the Chevrolet China Cup as part of Manchester United’s 2012 Tour around the world, which will feature matches in Shanghai and one other Chinese city. It also puts the Chevrolet branding on the sidelines of MU games and allows dealers worldwide to tap into the partnership for marketing programs in their showrooms.

In addition, Chevrolet will partner with the One World Futbol Project, an organization dedicated to fostering youth soccer in impoverished regions. The auto maker will donate 1.5 million of the group’s special nearly indestructible soccer balls over the next three years to children in war-stricken zones, refugee camps, disaster areas and other disadvantaged communities.

“This will make us more of a global player,” Ewanick says of the move into world soccer, adding GM needs to do a better job of international marketing to catch up to top competitors Volkswagen and Toyota. “It’s no secret we haven’t done a good job marketing internationally.”

Ewanick says the soccer deal is just the first foray in the strategy to more effectively put the Chevrolet name in front of a global audience.

“There are a number of opportunities in other sports and (other) promotional opportunities,” he says, declining to detail. “But this is an indication of how we’re looking at marketing for Chevrolet.”

Ewanick defends GM’s recent moves to pull out of Super Bowl advertising in the U.S. next year and to redirect money it was spending on Facebook advertising. News of those decisions caused a stir in the market last week, with several competitors taking shots at the auto maker for underestimating the value of those mediums.

But Ewanick says he is doing his best to weed out marketing inefficiencies, and the Super Bowl was one of those.

“Every cent counts,” he says. “The competition spends money wisely. If we allow inefficiencies in anything we do, it will be holding us back. (Dumping the Super Bowl) might be one of the most mature decisions I’ve ever made.

“How do you keep taking these (cost) increases year over year with no audience increase? At some point you have to make a statement. There are no sacred lines in that (advertising) budget.”

In contrast, the audience for international soccer is huge and largely untapped by Chevrolet, Ewanick says, with 3.5 billion fans worldwide. Manchester United is followed by 659 million people, and the club has 25 million fans on Facebook.

The team’s following also is strong in China and Asia, markets GM wants to penetrate better with the Chevrolet brand. The MU tie-up includes team players serving as spokesmen for the Chevrolet brand in places such as South Korea, Ewanick says.

Overall advertising spending at GM is expected to remain flat this year, but Ewanick says greater efficiencies will allow those dollars to cover a wider footprint in the market. About a third of the budget, estimated by some media at about $4.5 billion, currently is focused on the U.S. market, he says, with the international portion forecast to continue growing.

Chevrolet sold 4.77 million vehicles last year in 140 countries. More than 1.1 million vehicles were delivered in the first quarter this year, and Ewanick predicts sales will top 5 million for entire 2012.

dzoia@wardsauto.com