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There Is Nothing Wrong With 'Ambush Marketing' At The Olympics

Forbes, July 26, 2012

By Jim Andrews, IEG, LLC

As the London Olympic Games prepare to open, we need to put to rest the debate over what has become known as ambush marketing.

I don’t suggest a moratorium on the practice. I simply ask that we stop making a big deal of the fact that a number of marketers are vying to hitch their brands to the Olympics and trump one another as more Olympian without official sponsorships.

There are quite a few reasons to quit playing spot the ambusher, a game that has grown increasingly popular with each passing major sports event, be it the Super Bowl, the World Cup, or the Olympics. Chief among them: The concept of ambush marketing as evil is deeply flawed. At its core, it means two, or occasionally more, competitors vying to communicate similar messages through similar channels in similar places where each has a right to do so.

We don’t write articles or engage in philosophical arguments when two car companies buy ad space during the broadcast of a popular show. No one raises an eyebrow when an airline cuts fares to gain an edge on particular routes. That’s just competition and smart marketing.

So is ambush marketing. One company opts to buy sponsorship rights while a competitor legitimately looks at its options to counteract that move. As long as neither company crosses trademark and other legal boundaries—which no company of any consequence ever does—why should we care?

McDonald’s has worldwide sponsorship rights through the International Olympic Committee. Subway signs an endorsement deal with Olympian Michael Phelps. Why is this cause for debate? Certainly we can argue over which company has the better strategy and which one will get a better return on its investment. But why is Subway labeled an “ambusher”?

Is it because Subway is ambushing the Olympic Games, and not just McDonald’s, by running ads that suggest a connection to the event? Sorry, but any company signing a deal with an Olympic athlete, a national team, or a single sport’s national governing body, e.g., USA Gymnastics, is connected to the Games and has a right to market that connection so long as they stay within the legal lines.

But, you might argue, if a company can be identified with a major event without paying the sponsorship fee, it undermines the value of official partnerships and ultimately causes harm to the event. So isn’t that a reason to debate ambush marketing?

No, not without evidence that the Olympic Games or any other event has been devalued by ambush marketing activity. The rights fees commanded by major sports properties have grown steadily at a rate far greater than inflation over the more than 25 years that ambush marketing has been around. The Olympics and soccer’s World Cup have grown so valuable in the last decade that they are able to put their sponsorship opportunities out for bid, with prospective partners competing to come up with the best and biggest offers. McDonald’s, despite competitive activity in the Olympic space from the likes of Subway, Wendy’s, and others, last winter re-signed as an International Olympic Committee sponsor at the Olympic Partner level through 2020.

In fact, if anyone should want to end the debate over ambush marketing, the official sponsors themselves should. In most if not all cases they are the ones who lose out in the court of public opinion.

Avid fans of the Olympics, World Cup, NFL football, etc., are well aware that the organizations behind their favorite events and sports have billions of dollars, as do the corporate sponsors, so they don’t easily swallow the woe-is-us story line. Nor have overly aggressive defensive tactics helped the sponsors’ cause. Did no one foresee the inevitable backlash that followed the ban on French fries at the London Games in the name of protecting McDonald’s? Were fans supposed to sympathize more with the soccer organization FIFA and Anheuser-Busch than with the Dutch women who were thrown in jail for helping Bavaria beer pull off a publicity stunt at the 2010 World Cup? In that case, making an issue of the ambush attempt served only to draw more attention to the competitor’s activity then Bavaria could ever have hoped to gain, and made those in need of protection look heavy-handed and foolish.

Trying to draft and enforce regulations that lock out any competitive activity not only is impossible but diverts from what should be a sponsor’s primary mission of developing creative ways to bring its partnerships to life. A big idea well communicated is an exponentially better defense of sponsorship rights than any language or action coming from a corporate attorney or an event’s commercial rights manager.

Sponsors and rights holders should instead focus on their own marketing efforts surrounding their major partnerships. Developing meaningful, relevant, and authentic stories about their involvement will resonate with the people they hope to influence.