The Ambush Marketing vs. Sponsorship Debate Springs Eternal

By Jim Andrews Feb 10, 2014

The Ambush Marketing vs. Sponsorship Debate Springs Eternal

The Winter Olympic Games are upon us, and even though sponsorship marketing activity around Sochi 2014 is not up to typical Olympic standards, ambush marketing is making its inevitable appearance.

The most prominent example thus far comes from Canada, where the Budweiser brand announced an extension to its award-winning Budweiser Red Lights campaign just in time for Team Canada’s trip to Sochi.

A bit of background on the program: Introduced a year ago, Budweiser Red Lights are an ingenious way to capitalize on Canadian’s passion for ice hockey. The $149 Wi-Fi-enabled lights are programmed through an app to automatically flash and make a horn sound whenever a user’s selected team scores a goal, just as the real goal light in the arena does. Since Anheuser-Busch is not an NHL sponsor, the original version of the program could be considered an ambush of official sponsor MolsonCoors.

The 2014 edition of Budweiser Red Lights takes the program to new heights. Literally. Unveiled in an ad on the Canadian broadcast of the Super Bowl last week, Bud has created the Budweiser Red Zeppelin, a two-story tall blimp in the form of a giant Red Light. The airship will fly over Canada during the Sochi Games, blaring and flashing each time the country’s Olympic hockey team scores a goal. (It will also be used during NHL games after the Olympic break.)

Anheuser-Busch is not a Canadian Olympic Committee sponsor. That role belongs to Molson Canadian. The new campaign was brought to my attention by Bill Cooper, who led the anti-ambush program for the Vancouver 2010 organizing committee and is now chief operating partner of the TwentyTen Group, which counts the Canadian Olympic Committee as a client. Bill regularly updates members of IEG’s LinkedIn community on Olympic marketing and ambush activity, which we greatly appreciate.

After Bill posted an article about the new Bud Red Lights program, I commented that I thought it was brilliant.  Here is Bill’s response to my assessment:

“It is brilliant, but it’s not great for those who actually invested in the Canadian Olympic Team. So you invite people over for a potluck and your guests bring carefully prepared dishes and present a nice bottle of something as they enter. Then one guest walks in with a bag of chips and proceeds to eat everyone else's food and drink their wine and beer. You know immediately what kind of guest is on your hands. Well, somebody just brought a bag of chips to the Olympic party and is planning to hang out and soak up consumer love on the sponsors' dime. Classy. I wonder how the chips will taste if the tables get turned during that FIFA World Cup thing they sponsor.”

I understand where Bill is coming from, but I see the party analogy a little differently. You throw a bash in your backyard and hire a popular band to play during the party. Your food and drink is average and you only have folding chairs for folks to sit on. Your neighbor, who has a backyard where the band can be seen and heard, puts out a high-class catered spread and has comfortable couches scattered around. Pretty soon your guests ignore your offerings and wander next door. Did he take advantage of something you paid for? Yes. Was he within his rights to do so? Yes. Did he trespass on your property? No. You’re just mad because he did a better job of entertaining the audience than you did.

As I explained in a blog post at the start of the London 2012 Games, I don’t take issue with ambush marketing for a number of reasons, most of all because I have yet to see any proof that it diminishes a property’s marketing value.

If A-B is smart, it is expecting a competitor to ambush its World Cup sponsorship in Rio this summer and is prepared to put the same type of creative thinking that went into Budweiser Red Lights into its World Cup activation. The best defense is a great offense. That’s how you win this game, not by crying into your beer.


Olympics Sochi 2014 Ambush Marketing


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Jim Andrews

About the Author

A 30-year sponsorship industry veteran, Jim is responsible for developing and sharing thought-leadership content based on ESP Properties’ groundbreaking work in the areas of sponsorship strategy, valuation, measurement, digital content, data-driven marketing and fan engagement.

In addition to identifying key trends and delivering his unique insights into the critical issues facing rightsholders and their commercial partners, Jim is the chairman of the Annual Sponsorship Conference, responsible for the program and speakers, as well as hosting and delivering the event’s opening address. He also is responsible for the company’s annual report and forecast of overall sponsorship spending, as well as its compilation of biggest spending companies and annual industry surveys.

A frequent media commentator and guest, Jim has been a featured speaker at hundreds of sports, entertainment and marketing conferences around the world.



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Bill Cooper 2/20/2014 4:45 PM
Thanks Keld - I think we are all in agreement on much of this debate, but I won't for a moment let go of the fact that ambush is a competitive threat. And in business you need to respond to competitive threats. On that basis - ambush stinks and deserves a response. I elaborate a bit more at
Keld Strudahl 2/13/2014 7:10 AM
Ok Bill -if I remember correctly I sat in on your presentation at IEG last year and we had the same discussion. I am truly in favor of Jim´s comments and support them 100 percent. For more than 20 years I was involved as a sponsor,Strategist, Negotiator and Executor with the Olympics ,World Cup, Champions League, European Championships in Football, Major European Football Teams etc. Despite a lot of efforts from the property owners of these great events, I still have to to say that legal papers are good to justify to the sponsors that The properties have done something to protect the sponsors.Ambush protection rights programs are also good to document that The property owners means it seriously which I know they do. However I have been involved in developing these programs from the early days of Ambush Marketing and I am sorry to say that they only work if you "walk the talk" meaning:
Organizers of events needs to be able to show sponsors that they really can take action and show results which again means it is not only a long legal documents to the ambushers but also real penalties such Pr campaign, public embarrassment etc. My own experience is that the best weapon The property owners and sponsors can have is to ignore the ambusher - hit them hard back with your own creativity and create sympathy with the public. You don´t get much sympathy if you are a multi billion Property owner or sponsors who claims that Budweiser or Nike is ambushing them and they are going to pursuit them legally . But you get sympathy if you can point the ambush around and tell the public that you either don´t care because you have your objectives in place and have a great campaign already or The property owners really have some strong activities which can stop the ambushers. For sure we need ambush protection written into contracts and programs should be developed but I think it is still to academically and part of that big sum of money which organizer are allocated to legal document and law firms should be spend on real activation and measurement . I always said to my own organization "lets develop strong objectives and activations which makes any ambushers looks stupid if they want to attack. Never feel sorry for yourself in public but leave it to the lawyers( behind the scene) and our activation teams to deal with the challenges" It worked most of the time :-) Keld Strudahl, Former CMO, Carlsberg International
Bill Cooper 2/11/2014 12:01 PM
Thanks for this. I don't think anybody is crying in their beer. Nobody is saying a non-sponsor can't ambush and nobody is saying they aren't clever and creative in their thinking. But the propensity for our industry to celebrate and award medals ('Gold Medal for Ambush', etc.) for ambush is counter-productive. Ambush causes commercial harm to sponsorship - end of story. When a third party finds a way - legal or otherwise, clever or otherwise, infuriating or otherwise - to diminish the exclusive conversation your sponsor has with consumers it has a negative commercial impact on the existing relationship, renewal and long -term reputation of the property's ability to deliver on promises to clients. We can and should coach our sponsors to activate well as the best defence against pretenders because indeed it is the best defence. But is it enough on behalf of your partner to simply tell them to do a better job? No it is not. The property must and should concurrently work its tail off to mitigate the impact of ambush. And the only successful approach to mitigation requires persistence and creativity. In the last eight years the team I work with has used mitigations measures ranging from legal means, through to PR campaigns, through to orchestrating pressure from strategic partners of the ambusher, through to personal correspondence that evoke strong ethical reminders, through to competitive and commercial repercussions controlled by sponsors, through to bylaw and regulatory infractions that an ambusher might have over-looked to name a few. Ambusher are often smart, clever and creative, but if your ambush mitigation measures are on point there is rarely a case whereby a property needs to satisfy itself with simply telling the sponsor to activate better. You can and should continue to combat the impacts of ambush in defense of partners who have invested in your sponsorship property. If you need proof that ambush diminishes a property’s marketing value Jim, I’d invite you to sit in a servicing or renewal meeting with a multi-million dollar sponsor whose category has been impacted by ambush to which the property reacted poorly. The sponsor’s best defense is indeed a good offense, but you are only telling part of the story. The best servicing of a sponsor promise is firstly making a promise you can deliver and then undertaking all reasonable efforts on behalf of your client no matter how clever the ambush. So don’t just sit there mad, put up a tarp and don’t let your free-loading neighbours see the band you paid for!

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