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Will Social Media Become Ambush Marketing’s Favorite New Ammo?

riacaleAs we turn the page and look ahead to 2010, let us address a topic most marketers have a strong opinion on: ambush.  Whether you believe ambush marketing of official events is creative and cost-efficient or an unethical and illegal mortal marketing sin, the fact is 2010 will see more of it than many marketers care to envision.  Global events such as the Olympics and World Cup will fuel the fire, as they have in the past, but this time the battleground may be waged on a relatively new frontier: social media.

Sure, some will attempt to solve ambush with legal claims such as trademark infringement and unfair competition. Last week Major League Soccer filed a lawsuit against Black and Decker for their Dewalt promotion around exhibition matches (competitor, Makita, is the official sponsor of MLS). However, ambush marketers – and their legal teams – will likely find new ways to skirt IP issues with the Olympics, especially in an environment without precedent like social media. When you’re spending 100 million for an official deal, both property and sponsor should probably be proactively identifying ways to mitigate ambush rather than (or at least as well as) relying on reactive legal remedies. Consider this, Coke spent an estimated $70 million to be one of the top 12 Olympic sponsors — and $5 million to $15 million more on the torch relay, but according to at least one study, up to 60% of consumers believed Pepsi was the official sponsor in Beijing. Scary stuff for CMO’s and properties.

So what exactly is ambush?  There’s a lot of debate around the definition itself.  Wikipedia sets it out like this:

Ambush marketing is a marketing campaign that takes place around an event but does not involve payment of a sponsorship fee to the event. For most events of any significance, one brand will pay to become the exclusive and official sponsor of the event in a particular category or categories, and this exclusivity creates a problem for one or more other brands. Those other brands then find ways to promote themselves in connection with the same event, without paying the sponsorship fee and without breaking any laws.

jp1958Ambush is nothing new.  Here’s a few of the most notorious cases around the Olympics and World Cup, courtesy of Nicholas Burton and Simon Chadwick’s Typoiogy of Ambush Marketing: The Methods and Strategies of Ambushing in Sport, which examined over 350 recent examples of ambush.

Burton and Chadwick note that the practice has evolved over time from broadcast sponsorship campaigns and billboard advertising around venues to more aggressive off-site strategies. Some go as far as getting fans to distribute the ambush marketer’s messages for them. Is social media the natural evolution?  The scary thing for official sponsors should be the fact that the costs to scale an ambush campaign are greatly reduced through social media.  At least with past mediums, there were still some relevant hard costs involved in scaling broadcast, billboard and street team ambush campaigns, even if paling in comparison to official rights fees. Not so with social media. It gets even more complicated when you’re talking about events like the World Cup where 99.99% of the engaged audience is a viewer, not an attendee.  Properties stand a much better chance of “owning” their on-site experience with their official sponsors (lest we forget this …err awkward example of property vigilance from the ’06 WC).  It’s much harder to own an online experience, especially when content is so widely disseminated among various sites and sources. In many cases properties can’t even keep their broadcasts ambush free.

In 2004, John Crompton issued a report entitled “Sponsorship ambushing in sport” that outlined these categories of ambush:

  • the sponsorship of event broadcasts or television time around an un-sponsored event
  • the sponsorship of associated entities (other than the organizers/rights holders)
  • the use of advertising media near/in proximity of the event/venues
  • advertising using a theme or implied association
  • creating a competitive attraction to distract from the event
  • accidental ambushing of an event due to a lack of diligence on the part of the organizer

Social media probably fits into at least three of these categories. Or perhaps similar to other trends, social media marketers will need to completely re-examine the potential of social media’s ambush potential on sponsor campaigns of all shapes and sizes.

codaWith Coca-Cola as an official sponsor of both the Olympics and World Cup, look for Pepsi to play the social media villain (or hero depending on how you view ambush) in 2010. Pepsi has already announced plans to run an online competition around the World Cup. The winning fan will have a chance to sing in its new football-themed World Cup campaign alongside Akon and Keri Hilson.

Legal remedies or not, there is no doubt that some “official” sponsors will be relegated to afterthought by clever and vastly less expensive online ambush campaigns. Are sponsors (and properties for that matter) giving their full attention to the possible social media threats of ambush marketing? It’s a familiar battle, but new surroundings. One tweet, fantasy league and fan page at a time; properties and official sponsors will have to take an honest look at how they plan to overcome ambush in digital environments.  It’s a tough question and I certainly don’t have the answer (do you?!).  It seems likely that the best remedy will be the effectiveness of each sponsor’s own social media activation strategy.

Will Coke’s story be compelling enough to drown out Pepsi’s noise?


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Image by jp1958

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12 Responses to Will Social Media Become Ambush Marketing’s Favorite New Ammo?

  1. Maurice Cardinal December 29, 2009 at 1:43 pm #

    Good perspective Kris.

    Thought you might find interesting an article I wrote about “leveraging Olympic momentum” for the Vancouver Observer.

    Also, a few myths and facts about the term “ambush marketing” and its history.

    I published a book in 2006 entitled “Leverage Olympic Momentum” that teaches people in Olympic regions to explore legal and ethical ways to attach their companies to Olympic events in a manner that improves the visibility of their company and the Olympics, without harming the event.

    My argument has always been that if the Host region has to pay so dearly for the Games they should benefit proportionately too. Overpriced infrastructure like new roads and sport stadiums don’t count as a benefit when you consider they cost sometimes twice as much or more to build under an Olympic timeline. Plus, not one Olympic Host region has seen a “return on investment legacy” since 2000.

    It’s not a question of “if” social media will provide the impetus, but instead will the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver “or” the 2012 Olympics in London push sport event marketing into a new social media paradigm? Many believe Vancouver had the opportunity to do so, but they are not sophisticated enough to pull it off and that the change will occur in London. It’s a good argument, even considering the great strides Vancouver companies like lululemon achieved in this regard. Unfortunately, as NIKE said, “You don’t win silver you lose gold,” which means the podium finish for “sport event marketing changes” will probably be awarded to London in 2012 with Vancouver only 1/100 hundredths of a second away from gold victory.

  2. Kim Skildum-Reid December 29, 2009 at 8:35 pm #

    I think social media is exactly where ambush marketing will take place. In fact, that part of the event experience that is not controlled by the event has always been where ambush has happened, and social media has just made accessing that experience easier.

    I’ve written a blog about just this. If you’re interested, here is the link:

  3. kris December 30, 2009 at 10:34 am #

    Thanks for the links, Maurice and Kim. Agree.. it’s tough to ‘own’ mindshare. As a sponsor, you have to earn it.

    I think the scariest thing for sponsors is that ambushers who use social media effectively have very low marginal hard costs to a campaign. Whereas, traditionally each billboard, street team or premium had an additional cost, the scaling costs to a social media-based ambush campaign are rather insignificant. Tough to swallow if you’re the sponsor paying millions of dollars in rights fees, only to be blindsided by a five figure viral promotion online.

    With that said, nothing can replace the live experience when leveraged appropriately as you point out, Kim.

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