The impact of ambush marketing on official partnerships

Sports are no longer confined as being a hobby, they are huge business opportunities with commercial importance. Advertising in sports has evolved dramatically throughout history. From baseball cards inserts in cigarette packets in the 1900’s, to massive athlete endorsements and stadiums lit up by LED sponsorship boards in present day. Sports now is not only about the competition involved in sporting events, but an off-field competition for businesses to compete to become an official sponsor of a sporting club, association, event, or an athlete. This off-field competition has resulted in businesses investing their resources to gain consumer attention. However, this has resulted in two kinds of strategic marketing businesses opportunities during sporting events: Official sponsorship and non-official sponsorship marketing, for example, ambush marketing.

What is ambush marketing?

Ambush marketing can take two forms: Direct or indirect. Both of which draw upon the commercial benefits from the reputation of large-scale sponsored events, without being an organiser or signing any legal contract as an official sponsor. FIFA state that the common denominator of all ambush marketing is that they seek free advertising.

Indirect ambush marketing is widely used when exploiting commercial rights. An example of this is brands investing in the athletes or clubs involved in sporting events to compete for exposure. A widely known ambush marketing case study is the UK supermarket chain, Iceland, who invested in the Icelandic national team during the 2016 EUROS. As a non-official sponsor of the event, the brand created a multitude of social media and online media recognition which resulted in an incline in sales and market share.

In contrast, direct ambush marketing by intrusion occurs when a company or brand deliberately associates themselves with an event without purchasing the legal rights to be an official sponsor. In 2011, Heineken, the official sponsor of the US Tennis Open was undermined when it’s competitor, Stella Artois, advertised their brand on the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) platform closest to where the event was taking place. Whilst this could be seen as indirect marketing, the slogans “Your trophy awaits” and “A Perfect Match” could be seen from the event which resulted in confusion of who was the official sponsor. Despite the event organiser purchasing the advertisement space locally to the stadium, the rights of the LIRR advertisement space were not purchased; Thereby, the ambushing by Stella Artois was deemed unethical rather than illegal.

📸: Stella Artois ambush marketing

Ambush marketing as a tool for innovation

Ambush marketing creates opportunities for brands to express themselves and ambushers are becoming more creative in their attempts. Companies argue that the style of marketing, although unethical, should not be illegal because it violates their First Amendment rights. Alongside this, sponsorship bids for large scale events are too expensive and exclusive for most companies, therefore, to receive competitive fairness with their competitors, they have to result in ambush marketing activities.

Social media has become an affordable and creative space for ambush marketers. The opportunity to ambush official sponsors has become more accessible for non-sponsors with social media platforms facilitating the creativity of marketing professionals, allowing casual ambush marketing as a promotional tactic to reach large masses. Beats by Dr Dre ambushed the 2012 London Olympics by sending union jack-coloured headphones to some of the British athlete’s competing in the competition. Thus, benefitting from the social media exposure generated when the athletes shared images of the product to their online followers and tagged the brand. To help combat this, the International Olympic Committee introduced Rule 40. Rule 40 is an agreement with athletes that governs the way in which athletes (and their sponsors) can use their image or attributes in advertising during the games period for Tokyo 2020.

📸: 36 women involved in ambush marketing attempt by Dutch brewery, Bavaria

The impact of ambush marketing

Ambush marketing provides huge risk for the commercial programmes of sports events. FIFA considers prohibited marketing as a priority in its brand protection work due to the decreased value and exclusivity it results in for its official sponsors. The activities of ambushers lessen the benefit to official sponsors, impacting the integrity of the sporting event.

Some studies have proven that ambush marketing was resulting in consumers being mislead to who was the official sponsor of the event. The Global Language Monitor released a report which measured the brand affiliation index of companies at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and the 2014 Sochi Olympics to determine whether official sponsors or non-official sponsors were most recognised. The results showed that ambushers were generating similar or more exposure to that of official sponsors during the time of the event, with ambush brands ranking first place both times.

If ambush marketing continues with the current trend, it could result in the lack of interest from potential official sponsors which would see sport organisations and owners of sporting events incurring serious financial damage. A lack of sponsorship can create a sense of incredibility. If the value of official sponsorship is undermined by ambush marketers, it could result in the failure to secure sponsorships which could act as a statement against the event or athlete. Alongside this, it would result in a lack of funding. Funding from sponsorships is vital for many sporting events to operate. Women’s sport is a great example of this. There is a massive lack of sponsorship in the women’s sporting industry compared to the men’s which results in sporting clubs and events having limited resources to compete and grow. Without funding, the women’s boat race event had an audience of only a few hundred; However, CEO of Newton Investments invested in the event which took the event to being hosted on the same day as the men’s boat race, broadcasted on the BBC, and an audience consisting of millions. The financial implications as a result of the relaxation of criminalisation of ambush marketing could be the final straw for many sporting clubs and events, therefore they rely on the legal measures to control the unauthorised exploitation of commercial rights to deter ambushers.

📸: Newton Investments x The Boat Race

The current prevention measures in place are not enough to deter the act of ambush marketing as the results generated for ambush brands outweigh the costs. Whilst in some cases the intellectual property law does deter and result in a court case success, there are many loopholes that allow brands to get around this. To ensure a future for sporting events, research suggested that the introduction of new legislations, rules, and laws will be needed on a global scale to tackle the unethical style of non-official sponsorship marketing of events. Alongside this, more education to consumers and businesses on the ethical concerns related to exploiting commercial rights and the impact it has on sporting events and official sponsors.

Without the correct controls in place, the unauthorised exploitation of commercial rights threatens the future of sports events and could result in reduced interest for brands wanting official sponsorship which will further result in hardship for the sporting.

- Jess Blissett

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