The European Sponsorship Association (ESA) describes ambush marketing as ‘any kind of marketing activity undertaken around a property by an entity that is not a sponsor, where the entity seeks commercial benefit from associating itself with the property without paying any sponsorship fees’.
But is ambush marketing a form of corporate shoplifting or is it a genuine opportunity for a creative solution by plucky brands who can’t afford official rights?
Before we delve any deeper into the rights and wrongs, here are some classic examples of ambush marketing:
- 1994: at the Visa-sponsored Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer when American Express claimed that Americans did not need ‘Visas’ to travel to Norway
- 1996: Linford Christie’s infamous Puma logo contact lenses at the 1996 Olympics, sponsored by Reebok
- 2007: Tonga’s Epi Taione changing his name to Paddy Power at the 2007 Rugby World Cup
- 2010: Budweiser were sponsors of the FIFA 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but looked on helplessly as the football world toasted the audacity of Dutch rival Bavaria, who sent in 36 ‘photogenic’ ladies all dressed in orange to support the Netherlands in their game against Denmark
-2011: Three England Rugby players were fined during the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand for sporting branded gumshields, made by Opra
But what is the law? Brands cannot plead ignorance, but may take the view that the implications are worth the risk. Law-makers in their own right, FIFA, responded to the Bavarian ladies by ejecting them and charging two – but this served them with the oxygen of publicity they so desperately sought.
The London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 created the London Olympic Association Right, which gives the Games’ organisers the power to grant licences to authorized sponsors to use the symbols, words and logos of the event. Some may be surprised at how restrictive the provisions of the Olympics Act are, but even in the grip of a global recession, the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG) has still managed to raise something north of £700m in commercial sponsorship revenues, and counting. Over 50 companies will be officially associated with the event, sleeping sound in the knowledge that their rights are being rigorously protected by law.
But anti-ambush laws are far from simple. The primary grey area is enjoyed by those brands with indirect association via separate sponsorship arrangements. For example, as a long-term sponsor of athletics (the signature event of a Summer Olympics), Aviva is keen to promote its association with UK Athletics, which it has sponsored since 1999. But is Aviva ‘ambushing’ LOCOG sponsor Lloyds TSB? How about British Gas, the headline sponsor of swimming in the UK — is it ambushing its rival and LOCOG sponsor EDF? What about the common tactic employed by non-LOCOG sponsors to sign athletes in their individual capacity as part of an ambassador campaign? All of these brands have been (rightly) stringent in their written avoidance of Olympic references to media so far, but the media make the Olympic link for them and the brands are guilty of nothing.
So what should official brands do? Imagine a public education campaign that spelt out exactly how the money invested by official sponsors benefited sport and society as a whole. The New Zealand team competing in the 2003 Americas Cup did exactly that. A full-blown advertising and public relations campaign urged fans to buy only official sponsor merchandise, because that money was quite literally keeping the crew — and the hopes of the nation — afloat.
LOCOG now paint an even more graphic picture: without the official sponsors, the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games would simply not be happening. But has this message reached the public?
So where does the burden of responsibility lie when it comes to quashing the ambushers? My view is that rights holders need to be more forthright in explaining why sponsorship revenue is critical to the very existence of organised sport, and meanwhile, sponsors need to be more creative than ever in connecting with their audience and demonstrating value.
Creativity is the modern-day prerequisite of effective sponsorship activation, especially in a world of unprecedented clutter, when multiple brands with legitimate rights of their own are fighting for a share of voice.
Read my full article for the Journal of Sponsorship, here: http://www.hillandknowlton.co.uk/sites/default/files/Andy%20Sutherden%20essay%20in%20Journal%20of%20Sponsorhip_1.pdf