By becoming an official sponsor or partner of an event you are paying for the privilege to associate yourself with that brand. That may be through the use of certain words, phrases or logos intended to raise your company's profile. Even though ambush marketing is a legally dubious practice, this has not stopped many organisations throughout the years from using this tactic to gain notable publicity. The Wimbledon Championships have long been protective over their classy and traditional five star brand image. They have long standing advertising deals with high status brands such as watchmaker Rolex and Champaign producer Lanson as official sponsors. The official water sponsors for the tournament are Evian, who feature their products regularly alongside the athletes. However, this has not stopped rival companies from handing out free bottles of water to spectators entering centre court in an effort to be noticed. In 2009 Pringles handed out 24,000 free tubes of its snack carrying the logo “these are not tennis balls”. The stunt gained widespread praise in the media for being innovative but drew criticism from the events organisers.
In fact, ambush marketing has become such a problem at Wimbledon that the events organisers released a statement this year that they would take a “firm stance” on any ambush marketing. This includes refusing entry to any spectator they believe may be associated with ambush marketing and taking away branded items such as hats, rain capes, umbrellas, sun creams, radios and water bottles.
Ambush marketing can however be highly creative and has produced some very memorable publicity for major brands. The 1996 Summer Olympic games where held in Atlanta saw the then 100m champion Linford Christie defending his title as fastest man in the world. The official sponsor for the athlete’s footwear was Reebok who secured exclusive promotion rights. At a press conference before the race the champion appeared wearing contact lenses showing the Puma logo. This was later shown on the front covers of newspapers around the world, gaining great exposure for the Puma brand.
Perhaps one of the most notable examples of ambush marketing came in the World Cup 2010 when 36 women dressed in orange were ejected from a game between Holland and Denmark. Wearing short dresses and the national colours of the Netherlands the women drew lots of attention from fans in the stadium along with the cameras capturing the event. The stunt had been organised by the Dutch brewery company Bavaria to gain free publicity on a global stage. Shortly after the incident two of the event organisers were arrested with FIFA pressing for legal action to be taken against the brewery for breaching the Merchandise Marks Act.
Ambush marketing appears to be a growing threat that continues to undermine the development of commercial sponsorship. It presents both an opportunity and threat for companies seeking publicity at major events. However, ambush marketing raises both legal and ethical issues that must not be ignored. While there is certainly a responsibility for marketers to “do the right thing” there must also be counter measures and strategies to deter this behavior.
Even with stricter laws in place, the prospect of having your brand attached to a major cultural event, even in an unofficial way, may be too much for many companies to resist.
Current student in the Master of Marketing program at the University of Sydney Business School