Ambush Marketing

If you associate the word ambush (n. the act of concealing yourself and lying in wait to attack by surprise) with only warfare, then you are mistaken. It also pervades the marketing sphere. What is ambush marketing? What are the issues involved?

India captain Sourav Ganguly and Irfan Pathan ask their sponsor Tata Indicom to withdraw ad campaigns featuring them during the course of the recently concluded International Cricket Council (ICC) Champions Trophy. UNI Report

Strict regulations published by Athens 2004 last week dictate that spectators may be refused admission to events if they are carrying food or drinks made by companies that did not see fit to sponsor the games. Staff will also be on the lookout for T-shirts, hats and bags displaying the unwelcome logos of non-sponsors. Stewards have been trained to detect people who may be wearing merchandise from the sponsors’ rivals in the hope of catching the eyes of TV audiences. Those arousing suspicion will be required to wear their T-shirts inside out.
TOI report, August 10, 2004

What is the link between these two seemingly unrelated sports events. The missing link is the unique marketing technique called, ‘Ambush Marketing’. Ambush marketing has been defined as,”… the practice whereby another company, often a competitor, intrudes upon public attention surrounding the event, thereby deflecting attention towards itself and away from the sponsor”. Often classified as a form of “guerrilla” marketing, the term was coined by the originator of cause-related marketing – Jerry Welsh – when he was at the American Express.

Why this trend?
One of the main reasons for the growth of Ambush Marketing is the hype surrounding mega events like the Olympics, FIFA World Cup or the ICC World Cup. Sports events were not commercialised earlier, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. For e.g. Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar never used to get the kind of sponsorship money and endorsements, which say, Sachin Tendulkar or Saurav Ganguly get these days.

Smaller companies cannot afford the kind of amounts which larger conglomerates and multinationals like LG, Samsung, Coke, Pepsi, Reliance, etc pay for getting the sponsorships, which runs into millions of dollars. This is one of the basic reasons that is perpetrating ambush marketing.

Even larger companies cannot sponsor each and every event considering the colossal spends involved. All sponsorships have to make commercial business sense for the sponsor. Apart from the sponsorship fees the sponsor has to spend on TV, print and outdoor ads and related promotional activities at the point of purchase locations. Mr. Cameron Day estimates that for sponsorship to be successful, a brand needs to spend a lot of extra money on promotion around the event estimated to be around five times the cost of sponsorship.

Also the value of such mega events and mega spends on the brand visibility at times is dubious. After the Sydney Olympics, a published research conducted by CIA Medialab showed that 50 percent of the adults questioned didn’t know the names of any sponsors, even though 80 percent had watched the games. And to add insult to the injury, a number of competitor brands scored equal levels of recognition.

Likely Forms
Ambush Marketing takes many forms. Two of the main forms are-

  • Association Ambushing- the non-sponsor gives the impression of being an official sponsor by using words or symbols associated with the event; and
  • Intrusion Ambushing- the non-sponsor piggybacks on the media and spectator exposure of the event by, for eg, advertising near event venues.

Different Strategies of Ambush Marketing
Researchers have identified five of the most commonly employed ambush marketing strategies:

  • Sponsoring Media Coverage of an Event
    Kodak’s sponsorship of the ABC broadcasts of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when Fuji was the official IOC sponsor.
  • Sponsoring a Sub-Category within an Event
    During the 1988 Olympic games at Seoul, Kodak secured the worldwide category sponsorship for the Games, while Fuji obtained sub-sponsorship of the U.S. swimming team.
  • Making a Sponsorship-Related Contribution to a Players’ Pool
    Ian Thorpe being sponsored by Adidas’ when Nike was the official clothing supplier for the Australian Olympic team. Thorpe was even photographed with his towel draped over Nike’s logo at a medal presentation ceremony to protect his personal contract with Adidas.
  • Engaging in Advertising that Coincides with a Sponsored Event
    Intense advertising done by a competitor during or around a sponsored event.

Other Imaginative Ambush Strategies
This could include either one or all of the following:

  • “Hit squads” who target revellers on their way to and from the event implying association thanks to their physical presence near the venue.
  • Associating the image of a winning athlete around the brand.
  • Referring to a sporting event in advertising.
  • Using marketing techniques to mislead the consumer e.g. offering event tickets as prizes
  • Booking billboards near to event venues to fool consumers into thinking there is a link to the event.
  • Handing out unofficial programmes and free merchandise to event attendees – inside and outside the venues.
  • Distributing free samples of a non-sponsor brand product or giveaway items such as t-shirts or flags displaying the brand at the event.
  • Entering and highlighting non-Olympics related sports activities e.g. former Olympic athletes, children’s athletic causes and programs etc. to underscore the non-sponsor’s commitment and dedication to the same generic thematic space which Olympic sports occupy.

Ambush marketing, often dubbed parasitic marketing, has raised several issues. The most important of which is the ethical aspect. Is it ethical on the part of companies to indulge in such activities? An IOC official dubbed the Fuji-Kodak episode as, “breaching one of the fundamental tenets of business activity, namely truth in advertising and business communications. The debate assumes greater significance because companies are alternating between sponsoring an event and indulging in ambush marketing. For instance, Pepsi sponsored the 1999 Cricket World Cup, but Coca Cola put hired people in the stadium and made them furl Coke flags, drink Coke, wear Coke tee-shirts etc., in full view of the world-wide TV audiences. In 2004, the tables were turned. Coca Cola sponsored Euro 2004, but Pepsi used its association with David Beckham and other players to produce a celebrity ad that successfully deflected and diverted viewers’ attention from Euro 2004.

Tackling the Problem
Despite the weakness of the existing legal system, organisers are increasingly turning to it for protection. Thus the organising committee for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games successfully got approved the Sydney 2000 Games (Indicia and Images) Protection Act 1996. The Act was the centrepiece of the action plan to reduce the incidence of ambushing at the 2000 Olympic games. Similarly, the International Cricket Council (ICC) lobbied with the South African government to get the Merchandise Marks Amendment Act 2002 passed. The legislation even contained provisions to jail directors of companies that engage in ambushing activities. ICC has also incorporated a clause which mentions that players are not allowed to endorse products that are in direct conflict with the ICC’s official sponsors for a period of 45 days before, during and after an ICC tournament is held. While educating the public on the real sponsors could be a solution, there is the possibility of actually reinforcing awareness of the rival.

Event organisers and sponsors can curb ambush marketers by:

  • Preventing tickets from being used as competition prizes;
  • Policing the event more strictly for “ambushers” and denying them access;
  • Using event regulations and participation agreements to restrict the rights that participants can grant their own sponsors (e.g., what athletes may wear or carry when they compete).
  • Following a spectator ticketing policy that prevents people from bringing certain items into the viewing areas.
  • Entering into additional sponsorship contracts with or securing exclusive rights from key participants and major stakeholder groups (athletes, teams, event organisers and broadcasters); and,
  • Controlling the manufacture and distribution of licensed merchandise.

The labels ambusher and sponsor are not moral labels. The marketing decision to sponsor or not is a commercial decision based on the cost-benefit or trade-off analysis of the whole commercial proposal. So, today’s sponsor is tomorrow’s ambusher as seen in the Pepsi-Coke example above. Ambush marketing is the practical reality when companies routinely compete in the market place for the mind and wallet share and the loyalty of the consumers in the same thematic space day in and day out.

As a perceptive analyst wrote, “There is no limit to human ingenuity. As such, ambush marketing at the margins will arguably always occur.”

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