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How the World Cup is seeing the evolution of ambush marketing

Posted by Bill Sluben on July 7, 2010

By Jordi Connor, head of information and insight at OgilvyAction.

The FIFA World Cup has seen a myriad of football-themed promotions and communications fill our shops and screens over the past couple of months. Even though the vast majority of brands won’t have paid FIFA for the privilege of being an official sponsor, can their campaigns really be considered an ambush?

For an event like the World Cup, football and national pride generate a level of emotion that is arguably bigger than the tournament itself.

In football at least, the ‘art’ of ambush marketing has evolved. For the official sponsors, there shouldn’t be an element of surprise that their competitors leverage their own longstanding assets and associations to tap into the buzz the tournament creates.

And there is no need for the competitors to cross the line and break the rules to engage consumers. So without the illegality and element of surprise it’s not really an ambush anymore.

For brands such as Adidas and Coca-Cola who have paid to be official partners, the real job starts once they sign the deal with FIFA.

They’re given rights to iconography, phrases and promotions that can offer people a unique experience as a fan. They also have in-stadium presence and hospitality benefits. It’s the job of official sponsors to maximise those privileges and engage their audiences creatively in order to raise awareness, consideration and sales in a way their rivals are unable to do.

The Bavaria stunt, a copy of what the beer company did four years ago in Germany, raised its profile particularly in the UK, where it had the unexpected consequence of forcing Robbie Earle into early retirement from the pundits’ sofa.

South African airline Kulula also pushed its luck earlier in the year before FIFA stepped in and made it drop a campaign using the line ‘The unofficial national carrier of the ’You know what’.’

Official sponsors Budweiser and Emirates won’t have welcomed the ‘ambushing’, but these competitors are unlikely to be the ones that keep their respective CEOs up at night.

Most fans around the world will struggle to find a pint of Bavaria or a useful route served by Kulula beyond the World Cup. The purpose of the stunts was to raise awareness because they aren’t well known brands and, in their own ways, they have succeeded – FIFA’s intervention gave them the PR they craved.

However, for bigger brands that don’t have a need to generate awareness and aren’t official sponsors, such as Nike and Pepsi for example, a more creative solution is required.

A recent YouGov BrandIndex survey suggested that Nike had benefitted most from the World Cup despite Adidas being the official sponsor.

Nike’s ‘Write the Future’ ad – featuring star players such as Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi, Didier Drogba, Fabio Cannavaro, Franck Ribery and Ronaldinho, not forgetting Roger Federer – captures the excitement, inspiration and the fine-line nature of success or failure in a knock-out competition. It will resonate amongst Nike’s target audience and has become a viral success.

Such associates don’t come cheap and Nike has invested heavily over the years in aligning itself with such top players and arranging deals with national associations such as Brazil to ensure a presence at the event.

That Nike used these players in a campaign that coincided with the World Cup cannot have taken either Adidas or FIFA by surprise, but Nike hasn’t broken any rules. Nike, in the same way as Adidas, Puma, Legea, Joma and Brooks also make official World Cup team kits.

Both Nike and Adidas have given their players brightly coloured boots to attract the eye of viewers, stand out in photographs and drive sales amongst mere mortals.

The route of aligning with national associations or individual players has been taken by a number of other brands who perhaps didn’t feel the need or couldn’t afford to pay FIFA for global rights.

Carlsberg is an official England sponsor and is running a multimedia campaign themed around the concept of giving the best team-talk by asking fans to submit what they would say to inspire the players to glory.

Again it’s not cheap, but it demonstrates that showing creativity and an understanding of your audience removes the need to break any rules.

Such engagement is necessary as with so many brands jumping onto the football bandwagon it is easy to blend into the background. Some of the lazier promotions where irrelevant associations have been entered into, or the communications don’t have any real relevance will most likely be rewarded with poor results.

Big brands’ genuine competitors don’t want to draw attention to the fact that they aren’t official sponsors. They’ll only get fined and, as Nike has shown, you can activate around the World Cup legally if you have credibility. Brands with smaller budgets need to be creative and think about how they can build genuine engagement with their audience.

Official sponsorship bestows unique privileges and kudos.

If you can afford it, there are definitely benefits to being an official sponsor. However, it should be part of a wider strategy and activated appropriately.

Is your aim simply to sell more products or to raise awareness and consideration? Hyundai – an official World Cup sponsor – might want to get into car buyers’ consideration set, drive people into showrooms and see the benefits over a number of years.

The primary purpose for less expensive products might be to drive sales. In the soft drinks category for example Pepsi has an African-themed campaign featuring various high-profile players, but because of its official status, only Coca-Cola can offer consumers an opportunity to win tickets to the World Cup with each purchase.

That alone gives millions of fans around the world a reason to choose the official brand over their competitor.

Other events, where the sports or participants aren’t as well known or don’t generate such emotion in the masses, might not offer the number of legal routes that the World Cup does, but that is where the opportunity for marketers to prove their worth lies.


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