Forbes: Ambush Marketing – 7 Lessons from Beedie Professors To Win Promotional Gold At London Olympics

Jun 18, 2012

Olympic sponsors should watch out for the inhabitants of picturesque English villages - they’re the most dangerous and ruthless ambushers of them all.

The following article was published by Forbes on June 14, 2012.

Former Intel CEO Andy Grove claimed that only the paranoid survive. So should the mighty Olympic Committee watch out for the villagers in the picturesque village of Wye, 35 minutes from the site of the upcoming London Olympics?

Undetered by the heavy-handed restrictions that prevent UK citizens from using the Olympic logo to celebrate the world’s largest sporting event, the local church group has just staged a flower festival with displays that capture many of the sporting events in a dazzling array of colour and perfume. To avoid any legal wrangling they called the event “The Games 2012″.

Elsewhere, Twitter has cracked down over online infringement of the Olympic logo after the Games’ organisers, Locog, complained that an activist groups were using the trademark 2012 image to parody the London sporting festival. And local authorities have been bemused by the bewildering array of restrictions that prevent them from referring to anything remotely “Olympic” when describing the torch that’s being carried through their streets.

What is intended to be a national celebration has turned into a battle of trademarks, and protection of the official Olympic sponsors, who have admittedly paid out large sums of money to appear alongside the iconic 5 rings.

But on the eve of London’s Summer Olympic Games, and in the week that Danish soccer player Nicklas Bendtner dropped his shorts at the Euro 2012 tournament to reveal the name of an Irish betting firm on his underpants, thereby breaching an exclusive sponsorship deal as well as UEFA’s rules against ambush marketing, a business study from Simon Fraser University in Canada shows that the persistent effectiveness of ambush marketers leaves Olympic sponsors and those of other major sporting events particularly vulnerable – costing them not only their financial investment, but ultimately their customers.

Professors Leyland Pitt and Michael Parent from SFU’s Beedie School of Business examined data from the 2008 “Li Ning affair”, which saw Olympic sponsor Adidas ambushed by lesser-known Chinese sportswear company Li Ning at the Beijing Summer Olympics. The Chinese company’s namesake founder, Li Ning, was China’s most decorated Olympian and it was he who lit the Olympic flame at the 2008 opening ceremony.

Data collected after the closing of the Beijing Games isolated what the researchers called the “Li Ning effect” – which describes being incorrectly identified as an official sponsor, and the positive effects accrued to a company’s brand as a result. In the footwear category at least, Li Ning was the clear brand winner of the 2008 Olympics, in spite of the millions spent by Adidas to secure a sponsorship.

“Amidst the background noise of multiple sponsorships,” said the researchers, “this highly poignant event stuck in people’s memory such that when they were asked to recall who the official sponsor of athletic footwear was for the Beijing Games, more of our respondents thought it was Li Ning than Adidas.”

The study, “Event sponsorship and ambush marketing: Lessons from the Beijing Olympics”, offers important advice for marketers trying to see through successful sponsorship investments in future events, such as the London Summer Games.

“Don’t naively put yourself in a position to be ambushed; remember, large sporting events provide optimal venues and occasions for this to happen,” the authors suggest. “This does not mean that firms should abstain from sponsorship; large global events can provide superlative opportunities for marketing communication.

“However, walking into sponsorships and blithely ignoring the lessons from the Li Ning affair would be asking for trouble. If you do decide to sponsor a major event, anticipate and behave as though an ambush will happen.”

The co-authors of the study offer several lessons regarding event sponsorship that marketers should remember:

  • Expect the unexpected — ambush attacks won’t come in a form you anticipate.
  • Event organizers won’t always keep their word.
  • Don’t rely on governments to protect you — their own interests will always trump yours.
  • Be constantly aware of the likelihood of an ambush.
  • Remember that customers don’t care — they won’t share your moral indignation regarding an ambush event.
  • Don’t overreact to an ambush — it will only compound the problem.
  • Sponsorship is only the first stage of marketing in an event setting — a firm needs to be proactive in all marketing efforts and defensive in anticipating ambush.

And don’t forget to watch out for the inhabitants of picturesque English villages (including this author’s mother!). They’re the most dangerous and ruthless ambushers of them all.

View the article in its entirety at

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