Research warns of ambush marketers at global sporting events

Sep 13, 2013
Beedie professors Michael Parent (left) and Leyland Pitt (right) 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 Games.

Beedie professors Michael Parent (left) and Leyland Pitt (right) 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 Games.

Study focuses on disruptions of London and Beijing Games sponsorships.

Sporting enthusiasts around the globe are counting down the days until two of the biggest competitions on the sporting calendar: The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia and the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

But as fans look forward to both massively popular and financially lucrative events, a study from the Beedie School of Business shows that the persistent effectiveness of ambush marketers leaves Olympic sponsors and those of other major sporting events like the World Cup particularly vulnerable – costing them not only their financial investment, but ultimately their customers.

The original research, and the follow-up paper it inspired, focused on the previous two Summer Olympics held in London and Beijing.

Beedie professors Leyland Pitt and Michael Parent 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 Games.

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 its 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 Business Horizons. Researchers offered important advice for marketers trying to see through successful sponsorship investments in future events, such as the Sochi Games and Brazil’s World Cup.

“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.”

Their study was co-authored with Pierre Berthon of Bentley University and Peter G. Steyn of Lulea University of Technology. It was a winner of the Business Horizons/Elsevier Publishing Award for Best Paper.

Inspired by the original sponsorship research from the 2008 Olympics, a follow-up paper focused on the more recently held 2012 London Summer Games.

Entitled “Ambush Marketing of the London Olympics: A Content Analysis”, the paper was co-authored by Debbie Vigar-Ellis and Daniel Hall, both PhD students at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

The 2012 London Olympics were unique in that they had the strictest anti-ambush legislation and enforcement policies of any other previous Olympic Games. At the same time, they also had a very strong social media presence.

The paper looked at how effective this legislation was in practice, by undertaking a content analysis of text extracted from Internet and social media content about the Games. The researchers found that while this strong legislation did curtail ambush marketing to some extent, it did not eliminate it entirely.

They note the presence of several non-sponsoring brands that were particularly prominent during the Games — including Nike, Dr Dre’s Beats headphones, and the Irish bookmaker Paddy Power.

The latter used prominent billboards across London to promote their sponsorship of “the largest athletics event in London” – in London, France, that is.

Nike, meanwhile, launched a global ad campaign featuring everyday athletes competing in locations around the world named London. And American hip hop artist Dr Dre gained ambush marketing notoriety when he skirted the Olympic sponsorship rules by sending his Beats headphones — branded with union flag colours – directly to competing British athletes, who gushed over them on social media.

In June of this year, the paper won the Jane Fenyo Award for the Best Conference Paper by PhD Students at the Academy of Marketing Science’s Annual Conference in Monterey.

Seven keys to successful sporting sponsorships

Beedie 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.

This story was first published in the August edition of Ideas@Beedie magazine, the Beedie School of Business’ iPad, Android and desktop magazine showcasing the business school’s academic research, industry impact and engagement with the community. To view the full digital magazine or download the iPad and Android apps, visit

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