London Summer Games sponsors risk loss to ambush marketers: Beedie study

Jun 05, 2012

On the eve of London’s Summer Olympic Games, a business study from Simon Fraser University 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 award-winning study, “Event sponsorship and ambush marketing: Lessons from the Beijing Olympics”, was published in the March 2010 issue of Business Horizons. Researchers offered 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 study was co-authored with Pierre Berthon of Bentley University and Peter G. Steyn of Lulea University of Technology. Last year, it was the winner of the Business Horizons/Elsevier Publishing Award for Best Paper in Business Horizons for 2010.

Backgrounder: Study’s key lessons

Researchers 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.

Contact: Derek Moscato, business, 778.782.5038;

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