What is Ambush Marketing? How is It Used in Brand Wars?
In 2007, German car maker BMW placed a bill board in Santa Monica, California to promote the 35th BMW MOA Rally.
The billboard held the words “A BMW Rally with two nearby service centers. What’s next, paramedics at a chess tournament?”
In a bid to take a dig at BMW and take advantage of some of the buzz generated by the BMW MOA Rally, rival German car maker Audi bought a nearby billboard and put up an image of the Audi A4, which had just been launched. The billboard was captioned with the words “Chess? No thanks, I’d rather be driving.”
This was a rather cheeky move by Audi.
However, Audi did not stop at that. Soon after, Audi took down the initial billboard and replaced it with another billboard that was also a provocation to BMW.
The new billboard also contained a picture of the new Audi A4 and was captioned “Your move, BMW” a clever reference to BMW’s regrettable chess theme.
BMW was not ready to let Audi get away with such provocation.
Without wasting any time, BMW put up a billboard three times the size of Audi’s just across the street and showed an image of the BMW 3 series with a one word caption “Checkmate.”
Not to be outdone, Audi bought another billboard next to BMW’s and put up an image of the Audi R8 with the caption “Your pawn is no match for our king.”
Having had enough, BMW decide to put an end to this madness by putting up a blimp with an image of BMW’s F1 racing car and the words “Game Over”.
To show that it really was game over, BMW went ahead and tethered the blimp on Audi’s R8 billboard.
The above spat between BMW and Audi shows the lengths to which brands will go to outdo each other, increase their brand visibility and hopefully gain a larger share of the market.
The spat is an interesting example of a marketing tactic known as ambush marketing.
WHAT IS AMBUSH MARKETING?
Ambush marketing is a marketing tactic where a company hijacks the marketing campaign of a competitor in an attempt to steal the spotlight from the initial advertiser and gain more exposure from the competitor’s marketing campaign.
In other words, a company literally ambushes a competitor’s marketing campaign and uses the competitor’s resources and efforts to its own advantage, without the approval of the competitor.
The term ambush marketing was first introduced back in the 80s by Jerry Welsh, a marketing strategist who was working as the head of American Express’ global marketing efforts at the time.
The definition of ambush marketing has changed since the term was first introduced.
Initially, the term was used in the context of event sponsorships, referring to situations where a brand tried to associate itself with an event or a group of people participating in the event even though it had not bought any rights to associate itself with the event.
By so doing, the brand would not only capitalize on the huge audience that came to or viewed the event, but would also be stealing the spotlight from competitors who had actually paid to be associated with the event.
Today, however, the definition of ambush marketing has moved from the event sponsorship context and expanded to include any situation where a brand tries to take advantage of another brand’s marketing or advertising campaign for its own benefit, a great example of which is the spat between BMW and Audi.
TYPES OF AMBUSH MARKETING
There are two major categories of ambush marketing. These are:
Direct Ambush Marketing
This refers to situations where a brand engages in activities that are meant to deceive the audience into thinking that the brand is associated with an event or property, even if the brand has no rights to the event or property.
Direct ambush marketing can also refer to situations where a brand goes on an all-out attack to attack a competitor or steal their shine without trying to hide its intentions.
There are four types of direct ambush marketing. These are:
Predatory Ambushing: This refers to a marketing tactic where a brand attacks a rival brand’s sponsorship of an event or tries to confuse customers as to who the official sponsor is.
A good example of predatory ambush marketing is when Microsoft used Google’s advert video for Google Chrome to advertise against Google’s commercialization of user data.
Google released this video to advertise Chrome.
Soon after, Microsoft trolled Google by releasing the below parody of the same video.
Coattail Ambushing: This refers to marketing activities where a brand tries to take advantage of the buzz generated by the marketing efforts of another brand to gain some brand visibility for itself. For example, during the 2012 London Olympic Games, the Beats by Dre headphone brand was not an official sponsor of the event.
To gain advantage of the huge audience of the Olympic Games without paying a dime, Dr. Dre, the CEO of Beats Electronics which produces the Beats by Dre headphones, sent athletes customized headphones branded with colors of the home flag.
Many of the athletes tweeted about their surprise gift and were seen wearing the headphones by millions of viewers as they entered the Olympics arena.
This way, the brand gained massive visibility without paying a dime to the London Olympic Games Organizing Committee.
Property or Trademark Infringement: This refers to situations where a brand intentionally uses trademarks, logos, taglines, symbols, phrases, or other properties of another brand to advertise its own services in a bid to either confuse customers or dilute the marketing efforts of the other brand.
For instance, during the 2012 London Olympic Games, sportswear brand Nike was restricted from using the word Olympic Games in any of their advertisements since they were not official sponsors of the sporting competition.
Self-ambushing: This refers to a situation where a brand that has bought sponsorship rights to an event performs activities that go beyond the parameters stipulated in the sponsorship contract.
For instance, during the 2008 UEFA European Championships, beer brand Carlsberg, an official sponsor to the tournament, gave out free Carlsberg branded t-shirts and headbands during the tournament, even though this was not part of their sponsorship agreement.
By so doing, Carlsberg infringed on the marketing rights of any other official sponsor whose agreement allowed them to offer freebies to fans.
Indirect Ambush Marketing
Indirect ambush marketing refers to situations where a brand tries to indirectly take advantage of the marketing efforts of another brand or the buzz generated by an event.
With indirect ambush marketing, the brand intention is not to attack the other brand or steal its shine, but simply to gain some exposure from the event or marketing efforts of the other brand.
There are two types of indirect ambush marketing:
Indirect ambush marketing by association: This refers to marketing activities where a brand uses terminology or images that are unprotected by intellectual property laws or that are similar to those used by an event or another brand in order to create the illusion that the brand is also associated with the event or brand.
With this type of indirect ambush marketing, the brand does not claim any association to the event. Instead, it leaves it to the audience to form the association in their own minds.
For example, during the 2012 London Olympic Games, Irish gambling chain Paddy Power put up billboards across the city of London claiming to be the “official sponsor of the largest athletics event in London” that year.
However, in much smaller print, there was a disclaimer that made it clear that Paddy Power was referring to the French town of London. By claiming to be the official sponsor of the largest athletic event in London, Paddy Power was not referring to the Olympic Games.
They were referring to a traditional egg-and-spoon race in London, France, which they were actually sponsoring. The International Olympic Committee tried to sue Paddy Power for their cheeky advertising campaign but lost the case.
Indirect ambush marketing by distraction: This refers to situations where a brand puts up a promotional presence within the vicinity of an event without making any attempt at creating an association between the brand and the event.
By so doing, the aim of the brand is to attract the attention of those at the event.
A good example of indirect ambush marketing by distraction happened in at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when Nike set up an alternative athletes’ village christened the Nike Center about a mile from the official Olympics athletes’ village, despite Reebok being the official sponsor of that year’s Olympic Games.
SHOULD YOU CONSIDER AMBUSH MARKETING?
The various brands who have been involved in instances of ambush marketing do so because they understand that there may be huge benefits to be gained from ambush marketing.
Some of the advantages of ambush marketing include:
Done Well, Ambush Marketing Can Be Cheap
If properly strategized, ambush marketing can be a great way to achieve great brand visibility and increase sales without spending a lot of money.
By using ambush marketing tactics at the 2012 London Olympic Games, Beats by Dre became one of the most visible brands at the competitions, receiving way more visibility than Panasonic, the official sponsor of the games.
Getting all this visibility cost Beats Electronics only the few hundred pairs of Beats headphones that were given to the athletes for free.
This is a negligible cost when compared to the £64 million Panasonic paid to become an official sponsor to the Olympic Games.
Another great example of how cheap ambush marketing can be is the gimmick by beer brand Bavaria during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
During a match between the Holland and Denmark, Bavaria sent a group of 36 ladies clad in orange mini-dresses and asked them to attract attention to themselves during the match.
Orange is the color of the Holland soccer team, so on the surface the ladies looked like fans of the Holland team.
However, that color is also associated with the Bavaria brand. By attracting attention and drawing the cameras to themselves during the match, the ladies were subtly advertising Bavaria.
Even though Bavaria was fined for this, the gimmick brought them a lot of publicity, and the fine was a mere slap on the wrist compared to the amounts paid by rival beer brand Budweiser to become the official beer sponsor of the 2010 World Cup.
It is a Great Way to Ensure Maximum Returns from Marketing
When done well, ambush marketing can deliver greater returns than conventional marketing approaches within a shorter span of time.
For instance, after Bavaria’s beer babes saga at the 2010 World Cup, a survey by Hall & Partners, a global brand and communications agency revealed that at the peak of the controversy emanating from this stunt, Bavaria received 558% more attention in the blogosphere compared to Budweiser, the official sponsor of the 2010 World Cup.
Over the course of the World Cup, Bavaria generated 371% more blog buzz compared to Budweiser.
It was also reported that for a week after the stunt, Bavaria’s website was among the top 5 most visited beer websites in the UK.
What’s more, Bavaria generated more blog attention than the other official sponsors of the 2010 World Cup, including Adidas, Hyundai, Coca Cola, Visa, Sony, and Emirates.
Raises Brand Equity
Although brands engaging in ambush marketing have no direct association with the event they are ambushing, the illusory association to a world known event in the minds of customers often leads to an increase in the value of the brand.
It helps build brand credibility in the minds of the audience and helps the brand gain potential customers.
A good example of this is the ambush marketing campaign by Beats by Dre. Before the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, Beats by Dre was not a very well-known brand.
Following the Olympics, not only did the brand gain recognition across the world, its sales also increased by 116%.
They are Highly Memorable
One of the greatest attributes is how cheeky and creative they can be.
By their very nature, ambush marketing campaigns require a brand to quickly respond to or leverage another brand’s marketing campaign or event.
In order to get more buzz than the original campaign, ambush marketing have to demonstrate a high level of creativity, either through witty wordplay, visual trickery, and another form of unconventional approach.
This use of cheekiness, creativity and unconventional approaches can make ambush marketing campaigns highly memorable.
For instance, despite happening over a decade ago, the spat between BMW and Audi remains as one of the most memorable brand wars due to the cheekiness of world renowned automakers throwing jibes at each other using billboards next to each other.
Similarly, the beer babes stunt by Bavaria remains one of the most memorable aspects of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
Ambush Marketing Scripts Do Not Have to Conform to a Script
When it comes to marketing and advertising, consistency is very important.
When using conventional marketing approaches, brands put a lot of effort to ensure that all their marketing campaigns have a consistent tone, style, and feel across all the platforms in which the campaign is ran.
Inconsistency can do more harm than good to the brand’s image in the minds of consumers.
When it comes to ambush marketing, however, these consistency limitations fall by the wayside. There is no pressure to conform to a certain script.
The brand can use techniques that are beyond the company’s established guidelines.
There is a greater deal of flexibility and creative freedom.
Not only does this freedom make it easier to come up with impactful campaigns, it also provides brands with a chance to change consumer perceptions by demonstrating new brand values and attributes that consumers may not have previously associated with the brand.
THE DISADVANTAGES OF AMBUSH MARKETING
While launching an ambush marketing campaign might present some major benefits for your brand as we have seen, it’s not all smooth sailing.
Ambush marketing also has its downsides. These include:
Sometimes, It Can Be Expensive
The costs associated with ambush marketing will depend on the approach you decide to take. If you go the Bavaria or the Beats by Dre route, it can be very cost effective.
However, if you take some routes, ambush marketing can be very expensive.
For instance, let’s consider the spat between BMW and Audi and try to estimate how much it might have cost. Let’s assume that it takes $10,000 to put up a billboard for a month in Los Angeles.
Assuming that the spat went on for six months and involved more than 3 billboards, we are talking about a figure in the $180,000 range.
When you include the design and production costs as well as the blimp, the costs pass the $200,000 mark.
This is not exactly cheap. In addition, some ambush marketing campaigns can lead to lawsuits and heavy fines, pushing up the costs even further.
This explains why most ambush marketing campaigns are usually executed by huge, well-funded brands.
It Might Be Challenging to Determine the ROI of an Ambush Marketing Campaign
In most cases, the aim of ambush marketing campaigns is not to drive sales, but rather to raise brand awareness or enhance the brand’s perception in the minds of consumers.
Determining the ambush marketing campaign’s effect on these intangible factors is difficult because you can’t assign them numerical values.
Sure, you can monitor the internet and social media for engagement metrics such as brand mentions, links, shares, and so on.
Still, this does not provide an accurate way of determining the financial ROI of the campaign.
Can be Easily Influenced by External Factors
Aside from the costs that might be associated with an ambush marketing campaign, the success and effectiveness of the campaign is also easily influenced by external factors such as time, space constraints, as well as the reaction of the brand whose campaign you are hijacking.
Since the ambush marketing campaign is essentially a response to another brand’s campaign, you need to move fast in coming up with the response.
In the case of billboard ambush marketing campaigns like the spat between Audi and BMW, space constraints can also make it hard for you to respond to your rival brand.
Your competitor’s response to your ambush marketing campaign might also lead to a protracted brand battle, increasing the campaign’s costs beyond your initial budget.
IS AMBUSH MARKETING LEGAL?
While ambush marketing is a controversial practice, most countries do not have any legal provisions around this area.
However, the legality of an ambush marketing campaign depends on the approach used by the ambush marketer in that particular campaign.
If the ambush marketing campaign infringes on the trademarks and other intellectual property of another brand, the ambusher can be sued under trademark infringement laws.
However, many ambush marketers are usually careful not to infringe on the trademarks of another brand or event.
In some cases, the ambush marketer can still be charged despite not infringing on the trademarks of another brand.
For instance, Bavaria was charged in court and fined for the beer babes stunt because it went against FIFA restrictions which made it clear that brands that had not bought sponsorship rights to the World Cup were prohibited from carrying out marketing activities at the event.
Still, even with such restrictions, ambush marketers can still find ways to skirt around the restrictions.
For example, despite strict restrictions being put in place and even brand police being deployed at the London Summer Olympic Games in 2012, Beats by Dre was still able to successfully execute an ambush marketing campaign at the games without making itself liable to a lawsuit.
All in all, I can say that ambush marketing will remain a legal gray area since it is impossible to cover all imaginable ambush marketing scenarios, and ambush marketers will continue exploiting these legal gaps to launch ambush marketing campaigns.
While it is a controversial practice, ambush marketing will continue being a great way for brands to raise their brand equity, enhance consumer perceptions and perhaps gain a share of the market.
Brands that decide to go this route must be quick and highly creative if they want to their ambush marketing campaigns to be effective and memorable.
If you decide to go down this route, it is also good to first make yourself aware of the restrictions surrounding an event or another brand’s marketing campaign before launching your ambush marketing campaign, at least if you don’t want to find your brand on the defensive end of a legal suit.
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