Resourceful Guerilla Tactics or Cheating the System?
Imagine you just paid a good percentage of your annual marketing budget for a sole sponsorship opportunity, safe from competition, at a high-profile event. Then imagine that despite the exclusive nature of your commitment, your major competitor somehow became the talk of the show. How would you feel? Ambushed?
According to one source, ambush marketing is “a tactic whereby a company attempts to ambush or undermine the sponsorship activities of a rival that owns the rights to sponsor an event; often involves creating the sense that they, and not the actual sponsor, are associated with the owners of the event or activity.”
As a guerrilla tactic, it has come into its own within the last two decades. While it is most commonly attempted at sporting events, it can also occur pretty much at any event that receives media/public attention and has a dominant or sole sponsor. Events can range from sports games and competitions like the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics to concerts, contests, reality programming and marathons. The “ambushes” can be a performer or athlete simply wearing or using a product of the sponsor’s competition, groups of audience members supporting the product in dress or signage, buying visible advertising space around the event, or passing out branded merchandise outside the event so that people bring it in with them. The brand competing with the sponsor of the event attempts to shrewdly connect itself with the event, without paying the sponsorship fee and, surprisingly, without breaking any laws.
Fuji was the official sponsor of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, however Kodak managed to sponsor the television broadcasts and even the U.S. track team at the event. Fuji was not pleased, but no legal action could be taken. They did however take their chance for revenge, tit for tat, a few years later at the 1988 Seoul Olympics when Kodak was the official sponsor.
Some say Nike, of all brands, has the longest history and most experience using ambush marketing. They have used ambush tactics at numerous Olympics and other athletic events. During the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Nike sponsored the press junctions with the U.S. basketball team, despite the fact that Reebok was the official U.S. sponsor. But their most well-known and successful ambush occurred at this event thanks to Michael Jordan. When Mr. “Air” Jordan, a Nike spokesman, accepted the gold medal for basketball, he covered up the Reebok logo on his press kit.
In a 2002 example, Adidas sponsored the Boston Marathon, but Nike managed to ambush its presence at the event. As runners finished the race they were treated to spray painted Nike swooshes to honor the day of the race. No legal action could be taken by the marathon officials or Adidas in response to this because Nike was honoring the day and not affiliated with the race itself.
An ambush marketing stunt occurred recently at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa when the leading Dutch beer brand, Bavaria, decided to provide 36 women with orange mini-dresses and send them to the Holland versus Denmark game. The women were soon surrounded by FIFA officials and police who warned them that they could be arrested for ambush marketing and spend time in jail. The women were questioned and two were arrested a few days later under the Contravention of Merchandise Marks Act, which prevents companies benefiting from an event without paying for advertising. The two women arrested allegedly led the group of Dutch women who attended Monday's match at Soccer City wearing orange dresses sans logos paid for by the brewery company. One of the participating women told The Star Newspaper in Johannesburg: "We were sitting near the front, making a lot of noise, and the cameras kept focusing on us."
With the free press surrounding the controversy and the FIFA event, the Bavaria representative claimed no wrongdoing by providing the logo-less dresses: "FIFA doesn't have a monopoly on the colour orange." (Interestingly, this is not the first incident that has brought conflict between Bavaria Beer and FIFA over the color orange. At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, men were asked to remove their orange lederhosen or be barred from the games.)
Despite contrary opinions toward the matter, a FIFA spokesman claimed that the young women were being used by the Bavaria brewing company. On June 14, 2010, FIFA officials released another statement claiming that the World Cup is harmed by the detrimental activities and ambush marketing tactics of companies that want "to secure themselves a slice of the [World Cup] rewards illicitly without offering any financial support in return."
So is ambush marketing bad? As marketers, we’re always looking to get more bang for our buck and certainly ambush marketing takes guerrilla tactics to a completely different level. And isn’t the goal to engage an audience? Whatever it takes? It’s the “whatever it takes” aspect of this that gets into the fine but murky depths of morality in marketing. Is it fair to pay for exclusive sponsorship of an event or occasion and then be snuffed by the underhanded tactics of a more resourceful competitor? You be the judge. If you had a clever chance to snatch sponsorship victory from your largest competitor, wouldn’t you take it?