Wikipedia defines ambush marketing as “a marketing strategy wherein the advertisers associate themselves with, and therefore capitalize on, a particular event without paying any sponsorship fee.”
Big sporting events reach a huge consumer audience and tend to draw lots of media attention. It’s a no-brainer that brands like to capitalize on this kind of exposure. While not all brands can afford to run a 30-second spot during the Superbowl, leveraging timely trends can be a smart and cost-effective marketing tactic. The City of Omaha and Omaha Steaks probably weren’t planning on promoting their respective brands during the weeks leading up to the Superbowl. However, when superstar quarterback Peyton Manning shouted “OMAHA” 44 times during the playoff game with the San Diego Chargers, both brands jumped on the opportunity, generating tremendous buzz.
With the Olympics, the world’s biggest sporting event, there is a very thin line between timely marketing and a full-scale ambush. There are only 10 exclusive worldwide sponsors in The Olympic Partner (TOP) program including big names like Coca-Cola, Atos, Dow, General Electric, McDonald’s, Omega, Panasonic, Proctor & Gamble, Samsung and Visa. Through their official sponsorship in the TOP, these brands reach billions of people in more than 200 countries and the revenue generated accounts for more than 40 percent of total Olympic revenues. According to Sports Business Journal, McDonald’s paid close to $200 million for an eight-year, four Olympics sponsorship deal.
According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) takes these sponsorships very seriously. Host nations are required to provide rigorous trademark protections against unauthorized use of Olympic words and symbols. Also, athletes and teams must refrain from appearing in non-sponsor ads during a designated blackout period. With this year’s blackout period running from January 30 – February 26, don’t expect to see Shawn White hawking products for a non-sponsor anytime soon.
But what happens when brands bend the rules? In 1996 Nike’s historic Olympic ambush at the Atlanta games drew global attention. The sneaker giant usurped official sponsor Reebok by running ads on every available billboard in Atlanta, airing TV spots starring Olympic athletes, handing out “swoosh” flags, constructing the “Nike Centre” next to the Olympic Village and outfitting American sprinter Michael Johnson in his infamous gold Nike shoes. The bold campaign caused a major stir and resulted in the IOC cracking down on future Olympics.
In the weeks leading up to Sochi, the Olympic torch unexpectedly extinguished and was re-lit using a Zippo lighter. Zippo hopped right on this timely chance to connect to the Olympics and posted a picture of the event with the caption “Zippo saves the Olympics!” The IOC slapped Zippo with a cease and desist order and the brand updated its Facebook page to say “Zippo. Perfect for all winter games. Wink, wink.”
Then, there’s Subway, the world’s largest fast food chain and arguably one of the biggest Olympic party crashers. For years, Subway has been running ads that suggest an association with the Olympic Games. The sandwich chain airs spots featuring a slew of Olympic stars during the off season, plus they make plenty of vague references to the Olympic games without actually using specific words or images. By keeping things generic, Subway is able to dodge IOC legal action. During the 2010 Vancouver Games, Subway’s tricky tactics brought a complaint from the official restaurant of the Olympics, McDonald’s. Subway’s response: “My reaction to the fact that McDonald’s is upset? I’m lovin’ it,” said Chief Marketing Officer Tony Pace.
Love it or hate it, ambush marketing at the Olympics is definitely a sport of its own. Whether it’s a simple Tweet, guerilla marketing or a traditional campaign, determining when a brand has crossed the line is something only the consumer can decide. But its safe to assume that as long as the Olympics continue to captivate audiences around the globe, brands will continue to find innovative ways to associate themselves with the world’s biggest sporting event.
If you would like help developing attention-grabbing marketing strategies for your brand, give us a call.