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How to protect your brand from ambush marketing


One of the most popular articles on the Elevent sponsorship blog is a piece called “Top 10 sponsorship ambushes.” This always makes me wonder: why is this still a thing?

Many of the examples in that article are dated, with the most blatant cases of ambush marketing perpetrated by Nike in the 90’s (though they remain the bad boys of sponsorship to this day).

This inspired us to take a deeper look at ambush marketing and how it has evolved over the years. Part of the public interest in this kind of tactic lies in the ingeniousness of the ambushers, and the David-against-Goliath aspect where we can’t help but root for the underdog (which is actually not the real story). Plus, the ability to goad the rights holders into overreacting, which gives more publicity to the stunt than it would have received in the first place, is often nothing short of brilliant.

Ambush marketing in its most traditional form has usually involved media buying, like Nike’s takeover of adjacent buildings during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, or on-site tactics courtesy of promotional agents. But now, unsurprisingly, it’s migrating from the physical to the digital space.

Indeed, many of the latest examples of ambush marketing are online initiatives. They may not be quite as impressive or imposing, but they’re still damaging for rights holders and for the actual sponsor, and they’re a tad harder to nip in the bud.

Ambush marketing is done more and more through content. This isn’t a new phenomenon: Nike has released its fair share of ads and online videos during UEFA EURO and the FIFA World Cup, using the players they endorse and echoing the imagery and the codes used by actual sponsors (in this case, Adidas). To an uninformed viewer, it can be very difficult to know who the actual sponsor is. And, does it even make a difference? At this point, Nike is successful enough in how it attaches itself to events that it ends up enjoying the benefits of an official sponsor.

Over the years, ambushers have found ways to refine their tactics. For instance, many turn to digital influencers to create content for them. These social media stars end up getting PR or media access, and produce behind-the-scenes content for brands often without having the proper rights and authorizations. This is particularly common in the music world.

There are also brands that still go the classic contest route. This type of ambush marketing has always been pretty easy to flag in traditional media, but it’s harder to police on social networks. Competitive brands can do a lot of harm before official sponsors even get a whiff of what they’re up to, giving them little to no time to react.

Lastly, as we’ve mentioned in earlier posts on this site, there’s always the second screen. You can buy media to protect your partnership during a broadcast, but there’s no preventing the audience from being on their devices during the ads and even during the main program. This is almost impossible to overcome, unless you create something that draws viewer attention elsewhere entirely, which would likely be counter-productive.

The caveat with all this is that brands aren’t the only ones that have gotten more sophisticated: consumers have too. There’re not as easily fooled, and real fans will most likely discern the freeloader from the real thing.

Ambush marketing often arises when the rightful sponsor—due to a lack of resources or inspiration—fails to fully activate and own its territory. Sponsors should make sure that they have all of their bases covered before entering into a new partnership.

So, there’s no cause for alarm or despair, but there are some actions that can be taken to limit the potentially dire consequences of ambush marketing. 

  • Property and media partner cooperation is key: make it a joint priority to close up any apparent loopholes.
  • If you’re a property, it’s best to review your policies regarding access to your event, especially when it comes to granting media or PR passes.
  • If you do invite influencers, have them review and approve your policy for content protection
  • Keep your eyes open for any misuse of your brand or intellectual property online. This can be added to the community manager’s to-do list.

So, whether we like it or not, ambush marketing isn’t going away anytime soon. Though the tactics are less impactful now that they’re unfolding primarily in the digital world, it can still hurt sponsors and take a chunk out of their effectiveness and their revenue.

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