‘Tis the Season for “Ambush” Marketers

James T. Berger headshot

James T. Berger
Senior Marketing Writer

Published July 2, 2012

With the upcoming London Olympic Games, watch for the “ambush” marketers to come out of the closet.

The term, Ambush Marketing, was coined in the 1980s by Jerry Welsh, presently a marketing consultant but at the time was manager of global marketing at American Express Company.

In its simplest definition, ambush marketing is a marketing strategy in which a competing brands connects itself with a major sporting event without paying any sponsorship fee.  According to Lori L. Bean, author of “Ambush Marketing: Sports Sponsorship Confusion and the Lanham Act,” ambush marketing refers to a company’s attempt to capitalize on the goodwill, reputation, and popularity of a particular event by creating an association with it, without the authorization or consent of the necessary parties.

The Olympic Games offers a stage where Ambush Marketers can truly shine.  Famous examples of ambush marketing executions in the past include:

  • 1984 Summer Olympics — Kodak sponsors TV broadcasts of the Games as well as the U.S. track team while Fujifilm paid the fee to become official sponsor.
  • 1988 Summer Olympics — Fujifilm sponsors the Games while Kodak is the official sponsor.
  • 1992 Summer Olympics — Nike sponsors the press conference of the US basketball team despite Reebok being the official sponsor.  Players covered the Reebok logos during the medal ceremonies.
  • 1998 FIFA World Cup — Nike sponsored a number of teams competing for the Cup despite the fact that Adidas was the official sponsor.

In explaining the roots, Welsh maintains that several phenomena typical of modern sponsorship gave rise to Ambush Marketing: “the escalating prices for, and often the distressed imagery of, category-exclusive sponsorships;  their routinely poor packaging and their flawed presentation to potential sponsors, and in the increasing levels of marketing competition in major categories of consumer products and services.”

Welsh goes on the explain that Ambush Marketing in its purest form is perfectly ethical.  “Companies routinely compete, mostly, we hope and expect, honestly and hard; and Ambush Marketing, correctly understood and rightly practiced , is an important , ethically correct, competitive tool in a non-sponsoring company’s arsenal of business- and image-building weapons.  To think otherwise is either not to understand — or willfully misrepresent — the meaning of Ambush Marketing and its significant for good – and winning – marketing practice.”

In addition to the basic definition, this phenomena has given birth to an entire lexicon of types of  Ambush Marketing, according to Wikipedia.  For example, here are some definitions of DIRECT AMBUSHING:

“Predatory” ambushing: Intentional false claims to official sponsorship by a non-sponsor and/or intentional false denial by a non-sponsor concerning a market competitor’s official sponsorship, in each case with the intent to confuse consumers and gain market share from the competing official sponsor.

“Coattail ambushing: The attempt by a brand to directly associate itself with a property or event by “playing up” a connection to the property/event that is legitimate but does not involve financial sponsorship.

Ambushing via trademark/likeness infringement:  This can be both illegal and unethical.  It is the intentional unauthorized use of protected intellectual property.  Such properties can include the logos of the teams or events, or making use of unauthorized references to tournaments, teams or athletes, words and symbols.

Ambushing “by degree:”  Marketing activities by an official sponsor above and beyond what has been agreed on in the sponsorship contract.  For example, an “ambush by degree” of a sports event may involve a sponsor’s handing out free promotional T-shirts without the permission of the sports league supervising the event.  That sponsor may have already covered the stadium with its signs, or the sports league or participating teams may have made an earlier agreement – perhaps an exclusive one – to let a different sponsor to hand out the T-shirts.  In either case, ambush by degree clutters the available marketing space; takes advantage of the participating teams and supervising league to a greater extent than they permitted; and dilutes the brand exposure of official sponsors, including the other promotional efforts of the ambushing company.  This is also known as self-ambushing.

In addition, there are a whole host of Ambushing Marketing variations and definitions that can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambush_marketing.  Jerry Welsh’s treatise on Ambush Marketing can be found at: http://welshmktg.com/WMA_ambushmktg.pdf.

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About The Author

James T. Berger headshot
James T. Berger, Senior Marketing Writer of The Wiglaf Journal, through his Northbrook-based firm, James T. Berger/Market Strategies, offers a broad range of marketing communications, research and strategic planning consulting services. In addition, he provides expert services to intellectual property attorneys in the area of trademark infringement litigation. An adjunct professor of marketing at Roosevelt University, he previously has taught at Northwestern University, DePaul University, University of Illinois at Chicago and The Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He holds degrees from the University of Michigan (BA), Northwestern University (MS) and the University of Chicago (MBA). Berger is an often-published free lance business writer who has developed more than 100 published articles in the last eight years. For more information, visit www.jamesberger.net or telephone him at (847) 328-9633.