During the break of the football World Cup Final between Argentina and France in Qatar I saw a TV spot for Milka Mmmax. It shows happy young people enjoying the moment with the chocolate, while watching at a football stadium from the top of a building. Now, Mondelez and Milka are not official sponsors of the FIFA World Cup 2022; they just used the moment. This reminded me of the time when one of our clients asked us whether they should use ambush marketing in a particular case. The answer to this question requires a deep and thorough analysis.

First of all, let’s define what ambush marketing actually means and what its types are. The definition I like the most is the one by Chadwick and Burton who defined ambush marketing as “marketing activities of a brand seeking to capitalize on the attention, awareness, customer equity, and goodwill generated by having an association with an event or property, beyond the official or authorized rights of association delivered by that event or property.” (Journal of Advertising Research, 2011)  It is a quite comprehensive definition indeed. I think that the appearance of ambush marketing was inevitable though many marketeers consider it to be somewhat immoral as it feeds on other brands and events you have no official association with. Since the International Olympic Committee (IOC) introduced the Olympic Partner Program at the 1984 games in Los Angeles, many other sports organizations have adopted a similar exclusive model. This has led to aggressive bidding for sponsorship rights and global sports sponsorship grew from around $ 300 million in early 1980s (Gardner and Shuman, 1987) to $ 71.89 billion in 2021 and is projected to grow with CAGR of 8.32 % to reach $ 116.17 in 2027 (www.researchamdmarkets.com). Exclusivity and increase of prices left many companies unwilling or unable to invest that much in sponsorship and ambush marketing inevitably came up as an option. While there were 7 cases of ambush marketing during the summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles (1984), there were 42 during the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014. Even companies like Budweiser, Zippo and The North Face joined the ambush marketing possee during these Olympic games. There were also other reasons for the rise of popularity of ambush marketing: firstly, there were serious doubts as to whether sponsorship is worth the substantial investment (many surveys showed that customers do not recognize an official sponsor from a brand that did ambush marketing) and, secondly, many marketing think that ambush marketing is cool. This is probably why ambush marketing campaigns normally bet on humor, innovation, and the use of celebrities. Remember when Bavaria beer sent 36 girls with branded orange skirts to the stadiums in South Africa during the FIFA World Cup in 2010, an event sponsored by Budweiser? Their presence caused quite a significant headache for the organizers who used police to escort the girls out of the stadium. Not exactly the best outcome for the organizers and the official sponsor.

In the same 2011 paper Chadwick and Burton defined three major types of ambush marketing (in descending order of aggressiveness):

  1. Incursive ambushing: The aggressive, predatory, or invasive activities of a brand that has no official or legal right of association with an event, deliberately intended to threaten, undermine, or distract from an event or another brand’s official event sponsorship. Pepsi’s “Refresh Your World” and “Oh Africa” campaigns, created for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, for example, linked the brand overtly to South Africa and international football, directly competing with official sponsor Coca-Cola (Richman, 2010).
  2. Obtrusive ambushing: The prominent or undesirably visible marketing activities of a brand that has no official or legal right of association with an event, which may either deliberately or accidentally undermine or distract from an official event sponsorship by another brand. An example is the Polish beer brand Tyskie’s “Fifth Stadium” campaign during soccer’s 2012 UEFA European Championship (Klimaszewski, 2012).
  3. Associative ambushing: The attempt by a brand that has no official or legal right of association with an event to imply or create an allusion that it has a connection with an event. The German airline Lufthansa, for example, leveraged the 2006 FIFA World Cup Finals in Germany through a promotional campaign titled “LH2006”—a play on the airline’s flight codes and the 2006 tournament—featuring a fleet of aircraft with nose cones painted as soccer balls (Carvajal, 2006).

The Milka Mmmax example I cited in the beginning definitely represents the third type, associative ambushing.

So, if ambush marketing is so cool and it seems to work (why would else so many brands be using it, right?), should one simply go for it? Well, the answer to this question is not so simple and depends on the replies to the following four questions:

  1. What is your main brand positioning and how would the use of ambush marketing impact it? In the vast majority of cases ambush marketing is used on brand, not corporate, level. It therefore has to reinforce the brand positioning and image your company has set up to building. BrewDog, a craft beer brewery and pub chain based in Scotland, had managed to already craft (pardon the pun) itself a quite controversial reputation which is an indelible part of its brand image. Therefore it was not surprising when the company positioned itself as the ”proud anti-sponsor of the World Cup” in Qatar. This caused again significant controversy but for BrewDog this action and positioning make sense. On the other hand, if you want to keep a squeaky clean image as a company and brand who always operate within the accepted limits and regulations, using ambush marketing at all (let alone a controversial “anti” campaign.
  2. Are you sure that you are legally allowed to do it? – as the stakes with sponsorships increase, so does lobbying from event organizers and sponsors to introduce legislation to protect their interests. Therefore many countries already have quite sophisticated anti-ambushing regulations. Normally sponsors rely on two legal protections: claims for trademark infringement and misappropriation of goodwill. The first one is difficult to prove in case the ambusher has not used official trademarks of the associated event or its sponsors (and this is a really stupid thing to do indeed – so happens rarely). As for the misappropriation of goodwill, in most countries it is simply necessary for the ambushers to add a fine print stating that they are not associated in any way to the event. (McKelvey, 2003; Moorman & Greenwell, 2005) Still, the threat of legal action is a very real one and any company planning on an ambush marketing campaign should take it very seriously.
  3. What is it exactly that you are trying to achieve with this ambush marketing campaign? – There could be several reasons for your desire to do so (hopefully you are not doing it just because it is cool!). One of them is brand positioning as described in the first question. Another one could be to sabotage the efforts of a competitor who is an official sponsor. Here you will be walking a tight rope on the issue of the morality of your actions so, if this is your reason, stay within the realms of legality. You could also simply be aiming at increasing sales. If your product is sold outside the premises of the event itself and you have devised a clever campaign around it, this might well work. Often ambushers utilize a promotion of some kind. Of course, it could also be a mix of several reasons. You just need to be clear about them.
  4. How would your competitors react? – Very often one of them would be the official sponsor of the event. Would they accept it as a war signal? And do you really want such a war?
  5. How would your customers react? this also has to do with the positioning of your brand but if you have the suspicion that many of your existing and potential customers can be in any way offended by your ambush marketing actions you should seriously consider not implementing them.

If you have given satisfactory replies to all of the above questions and you are still convinced that you want to go for your ambush marketing campaign, you need to prepare an action plan and find the right partner (e.g. advertising or promotional agency) to implement it. There are some agencies who specialize in exactly that and can give you some great ideas.

As for the final game – it ended up being one of the instant classics of the football World Cups as Argentina won on penalties after 3:3 in regulation time. It is exactly the opportunity to tie your brand with this type of emotion that attracts official sponsors and ambushers alike.

Published On: 20.12.2022 / Categories: Branding, Communications /

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