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The changing face of ambush marketing

Events organizers need to stay one step ahead of ambush marketers if they want to protect their brands and keep their sponsors happy. Emma Barraclough explains how they are meeting the challenges of the social media revolution.

There was a time when clever ambush marketers could hijack a sports event by handing out a few dozen pairs of lederhosen to fans or ensuring that photogenic supporters waving logo-bearing placards were seated in camera-friendly locations during a match. But event organizers and sponsors got wise to their ruses and began to lobby for—and get—tough new laws that enabled them to crack down on guerrilla marketers.

So far, so good. But the rapid rise of Web 2.0 tools, enabling Internet users to share, forward, like and tweet with a few clicks of a mouse or thumb presses on a smartphone have changed the game for ambush marketing specialists and the brand managers who try to thwart them.

The development of ambush marketing

Four people who specialize in protecting the trademarks of event organizers and sponsors will discuss the new challenges they face at session WT20—The Evolving Nature of Ambush Marketing. On the panel are Kelly Maser of the United States Olympic Committee, Scott A. Bearby of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which organizes a range of sporting championships from soccer and baseball to hockey and track and field, Anastasia Danias of the American football organization National Football League and Christian Rassmann, a lawyer with Lorenz, Seidler, Gossel & Partners in Germany.

They will be discussing how ambush marketing has developed over time and how event organizers can best meet the challenges that new media forms such as Facebook and Twitter present.

For as long as there have been advertising slots on TV, trademark owners who are prepared to sail close to the legal wind when it comes to associating their brand with an event they do not sponsor have been able to produce slick ads that might easily confuse inattentive consumers. But whereas five or 10 years ago people might have seen an advert once and forgotten about it, now it can linger: on Facebook pages and in email inboxes. In 2010, for example, Nike produced a three-minute video full of images of international soccer stars playing in packed stadia and returning triumphantly home to adoring fans. The narrative-packed mini-epic makes no reference to any official football tournament and includes no logos other than its own, yet the version posted by one fan on YouTube (and watched more than 1.6 million times), is entitled “Nike Write The Future—World Cup 2010 Commercial”. Adidas was the official sponsor of the FIFA World Cup that year.

“The advert probably caused a lot of consumer confusion and the mistaken assumption that Nike was a World Cup sponsor, which they are not,” says Maser. Once a marketing tool like that goes viral, there is little that a brand owner of event organizer can do to stop it, she says. Even if YouTube agrees to take down a film, it will have been downloaded, forwarded by email and posted on Facebook, potentially millions of times. “The horse is already out of the barn and there’s not a lot you can do to stop it.”

Ambush by tweet

Twitter is another new source of problems for event organizers and sponsors. During the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, for example, pizza company Domino’s tweeted a promotion for a special pizza deal during Opening Ceremonies, says Maser. Domino’s has no relationship with the United States Organizing Committee or the Vancouver Games, and the official sponsor was McDonald’s.

So what can be done to limit the impact of ambush marketing in the Internet era? Maser says she advises sponsors to be proactive, creative and activate their sponsorship rights widely. “Buy advertising space all around the venue. Buy advertising time during the broadcasting of the event. [They should] push out their own videos over the Internet and utilize social media to tout their sponsor relationship with the event,” she says. Ultimately, if sponsors are good at filling up the marketplace with their own, legitimate adverts, there will be less room for ambushers to operate and consumers will be less likely to be confused.

(Note that attendance is first come, first served and there is a limit of 100 attendees.)WT20 The Evolving Nature of Ambush Marketing takes place in room 145 AB at 11:45 am today

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