Ambush marketing is a fairly new concept in marketing, where research into the subject has become an area of considerable interest over the past twenty years, as increasing amounts of companies opt to take up this revolutionary marketing activity. Although much has been written about “ambush” marketing, considerable ambiguity surrounds this term and its status.
From the earliest definitions of ambush marketing as a derogatory term involving ‘unauthorized’ practices, has emerged not only an acknowledgement of the considerable vagueness that surrounds the concept but also a conceptual framework of ambush marketing that more accurately reflects the balancing of sponsors contractual rights against the rights of non-sponsors to maintain a market presence during an event through legal and competitive business activities, although it has been cast as an “amorphous concept” along with being branded as a somewhat devious, unethical tactic, and an unfair marketing practice. Despite this ambush marketing has recognized its place as a legitimate marketing strategy.
Ambush marketing can be broadly described to encompass activities that exploit the publicity value of an event. This can be seen as an attempt by a company to cash in on the goodwill or popularity of a particular event by creating an association between itself and the event without permission from the relevant organisation and without paying the fees to become official sponsor. In a narrow sense, ambush marketing refers to the direct efforts of one party to weaken or attack a competitor’s official association with a sports organization acquired through the payment of sponsorship fees. In a broader sense, rather than such direct and intentional misrepresentation, ambush marketing refers to a company’s attempt to capitalize on the goodwill, reputation, and popularity of a particular event by creating an association without the authorization or consent of the necessary parties.
Ambushing strategies allow companies to circumvent competitors in achieving communication objectives. At the very least, ambush marketing creates confusion in the consumer’s mind which may deny the legitimate sponsor recognition for its investment. Ambushing has also been termed ‘parasitic marketing’ because detractors argue that ambushers are obtaining nourishment from the host event without giving anything in return.
The opportunity for ambush marketing activities arises because there are usually multiple entities involved in the staging of a sporting event. These may include a variety of aspects such as the media and merchandise licenses, individual athletes and the overall association with the event itself, all of which offer potential sponsorship opportunities. Each of these entities has the right to sell sponsorship. This makes it almost inevitable that there will be conflict between competing companies all of which have legitimately paid for sponsorship rights with one of these entities.
This proliferation of entity sponsorship’s has been described as the biggest challenge facing sponsorship as a medium, and indeed perhaps the major contributor to sponsor confusion, an environment in which ambush marketing is able to thrive.
Ambushing itself is now recognized as common practice in the sports industry; it has become an alternate strategy to purchasing official sponsorship status with a property and can be achieved in a variety of ways from direct ambushing activities such as ‘Predatory ambushing’ which is the direct attack of a market competitor, intentionally attacking their official sponsorship in an effort to gain market share, ‘Associative ambushing’ consisting of the use of imagery or terminology to create an allusion that an organization has links to a sporting event without making any specific references to it and the idea of ‘unintentional ambushing’ where consumers identify non-sponsors as the official sponsor.
In suggesting that ambush marketing is a continuum of activities that vary in the extent to which both legal and ethical limits are infringed; the following ambush strategies have been identified: (1) sponsorship of the media coverage of the event; (2) sponsorship of a subcategory within the event coupled with aggressive promotions; (3) Sponsorship-related contributions to the ‘players pool’; (4) engagement in advertising that coincides with the sponsored event; and (5) use of miscellaneous ambushing strategies that serves as a catch-all for a wide range of highly imaginative strategies to associate themselves with a particular event.
These strategies encompass a wide range of different actions, including the use of simultaneous promotions, purchase of sub-category rights, and misappropriation or forgery of trademarks available only to official sponsors, as well as companies that advertise or run promotions during a competitor’s sponsorship are considered ambushers, particularly if they use media spots during broadcasts of the sponsored event.
All these communication tactics are used in the intention of stealing the show from official sponsors and competitors by deflecting the audience’s attention to themselves and away from the sponsor effectively ambushes that event. Ambush marketing is solely a company’s attempt to attract some of the audience’s attention away from the official sponsor towards itself, whilst labeling it as the most common type of alternative marketing activity.
The ultimate consequence of any deflection may be that consumers mistakenly attribute sponsorship of an event to the ambusher, rather than to the true sponsor. In this context ambush marketing can be viewed as not only those activities that are aimed specifically at undermining a competitor’s official sponsorship of an event, but also those activities that seek to associate a non-sponsor with the sporting event itself.
These activities allow ambush marketers to avoid the cost of paying expensive sponsorship fees while gaining the benefits of associating with a sports property at the expense of the sponsor. This renders the practice of ambush marketing as a tempting and attractive alternative to sponsorship.