Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

How to combat ambush marketing at major sports events

Out-Law Analysis | 19 Jul 2022 | 2:40 pm | 2 min. read

Forward planning, proactive management and appropriate enforcement action by organisers of major sporting events can effectively combat ‘ambush marketing’.

Whether it is the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup or the World Athletics Championships, major sporting events offer marketers a platform to promote their brands to a captive audience and are very attractive to sponsors and advertisers. Official sponsors often invest huge sums of money to obtain the right to associate their brand with the events.

Other businesses, however, will often seek to gain exposure for their brands at these events too. Those unofficial associations are examples of ambush marketing – an activity that, left unchecked, threatens the ability of event organisers to earn income from official sponsorship. The phrase ‘ambush marketing’ was first used by the marketing strategist Jerry Welsh in the 1980s and has been a feature of most major sporting events ever since

From the perspective of the sports organisation, ambush marketing is a problem because a company or brand can gain the kudos of being associated with an event without paying any sponsorship fee. Sponsorship fees are important and are used to help cover the costs of organising and running the event and making it a success. In addition, because the sports organisation has little control of the content of the advertising or rival event, it can potentially damage the organisation’s brand.

There is legitimate marketing that businesses that are not official partners of an event can undertake around those events without straying into ambush marketing. Guidance issued by the organisers of the forthcoming Birmingham Commonwealth Games, for example, makes this clear. However, many marketers will often look to push the boundaries of what is permitted to increase brand awareness through an association with an event they have not paid to sponsor.

Examples of ambush marketing includes:

  • placing billboards near to venues being used by the event, such as near stadia or fan zones;
  • using words such as “partner” or “supporter” in its advertising campaign;
  • coattail ambushing – sponsoring an individual or related event;
  • predatory ambushing – attacking a competitor’s sponsorship of the event.

Preventing ambush marketing can be difficult, and to deal with it effectively the event organiser should take a proactive approach. For example, during the 2012 Olympics, businesses could be fined for using words such as “gold” or “silver” in promotions around the Games. Similar words have been listed by the Birmingham Commonwealth Games organisers as being likely to create an unauthorised association with the Games, which they said could spur enforcement action.

How organisers should address ambush marketing depends on the type of ambush marketing anticipated. If billboards are in the proximity of an event stadium, then the event organiser could implement an exclusion zone around those stadia to prevent rivals to its official sponsors from advertising in those areas. This happened at London 2012 and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014, and similar exclusion zones are in place for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games this year.

Organisers often seek to register logos or phrases associated with their event as trade marks to gain additional protection against would-be ambush marketers – a use of the Olympic rings in marketing campaigns by an ambush marketer is likely, for example, to be a breach of the organiser’s intellectual property rights. In such cases, organisers can send a “cease and desist” letter to the ambush marketer asking them to stop using the trade mark and, if this did not have the desired result, they could ask the courts to issue an injunction to prevent the infringement continuing.

Sports organisations can take positive steps to protect their brand and protect the interests of its official sponsors through forward planning, proactive management and appropriate enforcement action.