Ambush marketing- Is it clever?- Marzena Bogdanowicz

January 20, 2012

By Marzena Bogdanowicz

Ambush marketing is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the practice by which a rival company attempts to associate its products with an event that already has official sponsors”. It is often seen as a company’s attempt to capitalise on the goodwill, reputation, and popularity of a particular event or individual by creating an association with it, without the authorisation or consent of the necessary parties.


Ambush marketing can also be referred to as “Parasite Marketing” due to the similar nature of the parasite (the ambushing company), benefitting at the expense of the host (the rights owner). I much prefer this definition as it shows the ambush company for what it really is!

Is it clever? How do they get away with it?

Some marketeers believe it is clever marketing, and, yes, there is an element of ingenuity and creativity involved in these campaigns, but the result can be damaging. It can result in increased sponsorship fees and lack of sponsors for an event in the future, potential for damaged reputations to many parties and a feeling of distrust for the ambusher.

The increased PR gained from a public dispute about any such activities will only raise the profile of the unofficial brand; creating exactly the PR they were hoping for, in most cases. Most event owners and official brands often steer clear of attracting any media or commenting on an ambush; it is usually the ambush brand that informs the media of its own behaviour to help fan the flames of PR.

During the Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games of 2002, a brewery in the USA ran a promotion to “Win a trip to march with the XXX Sport Team at a major event in Salt Lake City in February 2002”, or words to that effect. The brewer had sponsored the XXX Sports Team but had gone a step further giving away an accreditation to march in the Opening Ceremony. Both the XXX Sports Team and the brewer got into hot water over this promotion as they were utilising tickets and passes in an unauthorised way and were clearly trying to link to the Olympic Games.  Creative? Yes. Clever? No. Ambush? Definitely!

In a few instances, the rights owner has taken a strong public stance and taken on the ambushing company. A good example of this took place ahead of the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988. An ambush promotion was being run that was undermining one of the Olympic team sponsors, so the National Olympic Committee in question made reference to the activity at a press conference and asked the public not to support the ambushing company as it was damaging the success of the team. This had the desired effect with denials by the ambushing company, removal of infringing advertisements, negative media etc.

Such action by a rights owner can work, but a strong position, and the support of all parties, including the official sponsors, must be maintained.

What is an ambush and what is good rights exploitation?

 In some cases the sponsorship of an athlete or a team taking part in an event is deemed as an ambush but in reality it is merely exploitation of rights, so long as no direct association with the event itself is attempted.

Each brand, be it the sponsor of the athlete, sponsor of the team, or sponsor of the event will have its own clear rights and assets, most of which are mutually exclusive and should be clearly defined. It is only where the definitions are grey or one sponsor tries to creep into the area of rights of another that matters move into ambush potential. In cases where it is exploitation of rights I would argue it is not an ambush.

Those companies that do not support an athlete, a team or an event and create PR stunts to associate with an event, in my opinion, are those that cause the greatest damage. They do not provide support to anyone and feed off the assets of all others- true parasites!

The London Organising Committee for the Olympic & Paralympic Games (LOCOG) has been both strong and proactive in its stance on protecting its rights. There is strong legislation in place, but also guidance on what can be done within the regulations. Despite all this, it still never ceases to amaze me how many companies run promotions and activities that have clearly not been thought through or checked from a rights perspective e.g. a competition to win Olympic tickets or using the Olympic symbol on products!

Focus on what you can do and do it well. Use the emotion and passion of sport rather than creating stunts that often do not quite generate the response that you hope for. The public are becoming more astute as to what is or is not official and the majority of research shows support for official partners.

Where do you draw the line?

I believe there is line that a brand should not cross, as one day it will come back to haunt them.  Whether it is the individual involved in leading the campaign, the agency or the company itself they may well be remembered for their unscrupulous actions.

Please don’t be a parasite! 

Marzena Bogdanowicz and her team at b-focused have worked with sports rights holders in defining their marketing and sponsorship strategies, management and coordination of key projects and events such as the 2008 Visa Handover in The Mall, London & The 2004 Olympic Torch Relay, London.

Marzena spent 10 years with the British Olympic Association as their Director of Marketing, where she developed a lasting legacy with the introduction of the internationally recognised and well established Team GB brand, representing the Great Britain Olympic Team.  In that time she was involved in all UK Olympic Sponsorship programmes.

Marzena is a well respected figure in the industry appearing as a regular judge on the Sports Industry Awards Panel since 2005, and is regularly invited to speak across Europe on Olympic and elite sports sponsorship.

Marzena Bogdanowicz’s isportconnect-profile-widget

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