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World Cup Issues a Red Card to Ambush Marketers, Marketers

Marketing News Exclusives, June 03, 2010

By Allison Enright

The first of 64 soccer matches to be played in the 2010 FIFA World Cup kicks off June 11, and the month-long event’s official sponsors are set to capitalize on their multimillion-dollar investments. But also hoping to score some points with soccer’s international fan base are the world’s ambush marketers. By last count, the cumulative Word Cup TV audience is estimated at 26 billion.

FIFA—the organizing body for World Cup—has done more than its due diligence to protect its brand assets. According to FIFA, it registered its official emblems in 153 countries and in several hundred product categories. It’s gone after a number of infringements in the courts already, particularly in South Africa, the host nation for the event. On the ground, it’s bought up the ad space around the stadium and along major travel routes so it can only be used by official Cup sponsors. On game days, the airspace will be locked down and more than 100 security personnel on the stadium grounds will be dedicated to clearing out attempts at ambush marketing.

But while marketing experts say FIFA is certainly being thorough, ambush marketers will find a way. “It’s interesting that FIFA and the Olympics, they take the same approach. They say: ‘We are drawing the line in the sand. We are not going to get ambushed.’ And you know what? They get ambushed every time,” says Kim Skildum-Reid, director of Power Sponsorship in Sydney,

Australia, and author of The Ambush Marketing Toolkit.

Jim Andrews, executive vice president at the Chicago-based sponsorship marketing firm IEG, concurs. “There is no way that a governing body can entirely make an event ambush-proof. You cannot own the intellectual property space around soccer. You can’t stop a competitor from implying association with the sport, so you do what you can. For the most part, [the Olympic organizers] and FIFA do a pretty good job of protecting their sponsors, but if you look closely you can find holes.”

“Every year, ambush marketers have had to become more sophisticated and mobile. … The ability to put something physically on the ground has been reduced,” says Mary O’Connor, director of global events and hospitality at the Marketing Arm in Dallas. O’Connor organized sponsorship events for AT&T at the Olympics in Beijing and Vancouver.

The key to successful ambush marketing, says Skildum-Reid, is to think about ambush marketing not just the event, but about how a marketer can add value to the whole experience surrounding the event. She says that official sponsors oftentimes focus their marketing activities just on the event or broadcast itself, which leaves holes ambush marketers can fill to connect with the audience.

“I think that brands that try to ambush just by getting close to [infringing on] the trademark are missing the point. It’s not about pretending to be a sponsor or coming close to the laws, it is about Marketing News Exclusives June 3, 2010 adding to the event experience. Consumers do not care if someone is an official sponsor not.

They think: ‘Hey, what’s in it for me? Is this brand making [the experience] better for me?’ If they are, [consumers] are quite happy to side with the ambusher,” she says.

Ambush marketing can be as simple as creating a soccer-themed advertisement and buying airtime during a broadcast, or adding something to brand packaging, O’Connor says. “You may not use [official World Cup] marks, but you can sure use soccer and create an implied association. It’s brilliant and smart,” she says, using the example of Lay’s potato chips being sold in Taiwan with images of soccer balls on the packaging.

As for publicity stunts happening on the ground at events, experts agree they are getting harder to do and, more importantly, most don’t amount to much in terms of adding to brand value or executing a marketer’s brand strategy. “[Stunts have] no real effect on the sponsors, the event organizers or the ambusher’s bottom line. They’re just an ego trip, for sure,” Skildum-Reid says.

The mistake that occasionally happens is that the sponsoring companies or organizers overreact to an attempt at ambush marketing and it hits the press. Now, instead of a few thousand people being exposed to a silly stunt, it gets exposed to millions through the media. One example from the 2006 World Cup in Germany was when the Dutch brewer Bavaria gave away orange pants (also the color of the Dutch national team) with its brand marks on them. More than a thousand ticketholders tried to wear them at the game. Security stopped them at the gate, however, and made them surrender their pants. Faced with missing the game, they gave them up and watched the game in their underwear. The story went around the world.

That kind of a reaction is a mistake, Andrews says. “You create [an environment] of somebody wanting to do a stunt only because they are going to get publicity when it gets shut down. There’s an argument that if FIFA didn’t make a big deal out of it, would it even get noticed? … By cracking down on it you shine a light on those you’d rather not,” he says.

And there’s evidence that, in the long run, an overreaction is often remembered—in the ambusher’s favor. T. Bettina Cornwell, professor of marketing and sport management at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, did a study on the long-term effect of counter-ambushing strategies, such as the “name and shame” approach, where organizers and sponsors try to get negative press attention for ambush attempts. “People forget the particulars and remember the relationship. They read a news article about a brand and an event and they forget that that was an ambusher. They just come away with a link between the two,” she says. “The whole point of it being an ambushing event may be lost on the consumer. When you point it out you run the risk of linking the relationship to the ambusher in their mind.”