6 Companies Launch Ambush Marketing Attacks

Some weird things have been happening at sporting events recently.

  • Why were a group of lovely ladies arrested at this year’s World Cup for wearing orange dresses?
  • Why did hundreds of soccer fans have to strip to their underwear?
  • Is there a dark side to the fun stuff that companies hand out for free?

We have been investigating the rise of the pseudo-sponsor, and the phenomenon known as “Ambush Marketing”.
Read on to discover some of it’s finest moments….

The expression ambush marketing was coined in the early nineties by American Express marketing guru, Jerry Welsh. His original perception was the idea of healthy competition in a climate of expensive and often ill-conceived sponsorships.

Today, ambush marketing most commonly occurs in association with major sports events, although potentially other types of events could be used as a venue. Sponsorship is big business, and one brand may pay millions of dollars to become the exclusive and official sponsor of an event. This exclusivity then creates a problem for the other brands, and they have to find ways to promote themselves in connection with the event, but without paying the sponsorship fee and without breaking any laws.

For the 2008 Beijing Olympics the T.O.P. (The Olympic Partner) program of 12 sponsors paid a total of $866 million for the privilege of exclusivity. These same companies also spent a further $1.2 billion on supporting marketing activities. Yet for all this cash, recognition of these brands as the official sponsor was rated below 40% amongst consumers in a post games survey. The success of many of these campaigns means that ambush marketing has itself become a huge growth industry.

Sources: Wikipedia, SportsProMedia

1.Kodak Vs Fuji

kodak vs fuji

According to Professor of marketing at Bath University, Mike Beverland, “Ambush marketing really began with Kodak in the 1984 Olympics when they ran a series of campaigns suggesting they were the official sponsors when in fact they weren’t.” They successfully managed to convince the consumer they were the official sponsor, when in fact it was Fuji Film.

Kodak ambushed Fuji again in1996. ‘As soon as Atlanta was awarded the rights for the 1996 summer games, Kodak bought 50 major poster sites in the city for the next four years, at an estimated $28,000 per month,’ said Richard Busby, chief executive of Strategic Sponsorship, a leading UK consultancy.

The local Olympic organizing committee had tried to negotiate a deal with the city’s poster companies to offer Olympic sponsors first right of refusal – but they were too late. So, the official sponsor Fuji, was again pipped at the post by Kodak.

Sources: independent.co.uk,channel4.com

2. Bavaria Beer Vs Budweiser

Bavaria beer vs Budweiser

One of the highlights of this year’s World Cup in South Africa occurred during the match between Holland and Denmark. 36 female Dutch fans arrived wearing very cute little orange mini-dresses, which soon caught the attention of the world’s media. Unfortunately, these ladies were evicted from the stadium and arrested by police, as it was claimed the dresses were provided by a Dutch brewery, called Bavaria Beer. FIFA officials intervened to stop the media coverage, in order to protect their official sponsor Budweiser.

Peer Swinkels, from Bavaria Beer, said people “should have the right to wear what they want. The Dutch people are a little crazy about orange and we wear it on public holidays and events like the World Cup,” he said. “This time we put no branding on the dress. And Fifa don’t have a monopoly over orange.”

Fifa World Cup 2006

Fifa World Cup 2006


Bavaria Beer are no stranger to controversy – or to sports fashion. Back in 2006, during the Fifa World Cup in Germany, marketers from Bavaria Beer arrived with around 120,000 pairs of bright orange lederhosen emblazoned with the Bavaria brand. Fifa officials issued orders for security people to strip the Dutch supporters of the offending articles, which meant hundreds of Dutch fans had to watch the game in their underwear. The world’s media ran riot with the story, even suggesting Fifa’s heavy-handed approach to protecting it’s official sponsor, Budweiser (again), infringed on human rights.

Professor Simon Chadwick, who heads up the Center for the International Business of Sport at Coventry University explains: “Clearly the ambush failed because they didn’t get into the stadium. But in another sense it worked perfectly because suddenly everyone across the world was talking about it.”

Sources: telegraph.co.uk,news.bbc.co.uk, sportspromedia.com


3. Coca-Cola Vs PepsiCo

Coke vs Pepsi

Coca-Cola spent a total of $400 million on marketing in Beijing in 2008, including $85 million to be an Olympic sponsor, yet up to 60% of consumers believed Pepsi was the official sponsor.

PepsiCo’s highly successful marketing campaign included an online competition, in which 160 million voters from mainland China ranked mug shots sent in by fans. The winning entries were printed on cans cheering on Team China. Pepsi also replaced it’s traditional blue cans in China with red ones “to show our respect to the year of China,” says Harry Hui, Pepsi’s marketing chief in China.

Sources: BusinessWeek,independent.co.uk

4. Li Ning Vs Adidas

Li Ning vs Adidas


Li Ning vs Adidas 2

This has been called the greatest marketing ambush in sports history. Adidas, had spent nearly $200 million to become the official sportswear brand at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 – only to be ambushed quite spectacularly by the Chinese sportswear brand Li Ling.

The problem occurred when Li Ning, a former gymnast and founder of the sportswear company, was chosen to light the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony. Li Ning was China’s most decorated Olympian and a national hero. He was the first Chinese gymnast to win a medal in the Olympics, winning three golds, two silvers, and a bronze in the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

The media exposure effectively gave his company a free ten-minute advert across China and the world.

Li Ning was shrewd enough to realize that his starring role would lead Chinese consumers to automatically believe he was wearing his own apparel – when in fact he was legitimately bedecked in Adidas’ official Olympic clothing. To add to the confusion, Li Ning’s corporate logo resembles the famous Nike ‘swoosh’, while the company slogan, ‘Anything is Possible’, is similar to the Adidas tag line ‘Impossible is Nothing’.

It worked – after the event Li Ning’s Hong Kong-listed shares jumped 3.4%.

Sources: BusinessWeek,sportspromedia.com, advertising.suite101.com


5. Visa Vs Amex


One of the most deep-rooted and long-lasting rivalries in marketing occurred between Visa International and American Express. These two card companies had been at war ever since Amex lost the Olympic rights to Visa after the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, and hostilities rumbled on into 1992 and the Barcelona Olympics. In the US, Visa’s tag line was ‘the Olympics don’t take American Express’, with images of ticket windows being slammed shut in the faces of American Express card holders. American Express responded in style, pointing out in its own advertising campaigns that ‘to visit Spain, you don’t need a visa.’

This is perhaps one of the finest examples of successful ambush marketing. With no recourse to the law, proof of a violation of intellectual property rights being very hard to pin down in this instance, Visa was forced to accept the campaign as legitimate.

Sources: sportspromedia.com

6. Nike Vs Everyone else!

Nike shoes

Probably the most outright and unapologetic (not to mention successful) brand to embrace ambush marketing is Nike. Nike has ambushed just about every sports shoe manufacturer you can think of…

Nike Vs Adidas
During the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, Nike made considerable use of the number 8, a symbol of luck and fortune in China and incorporated the design pattern on items of clothing and footwear.

For the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, Nike spent $18 million on it’s ambush by funding bus-side screens to display the latest scores, and hosting a mysterious “Scorpion” tournament featuring some of the world’s best footballers. A December 2001 study found that, from a list of 45 likely sponsors of the 2002 World Cup, 20% of those polled picked Nike.

Nike Vs Umbro

The 1996 Uefa European Championship provided an example of ambush marketing that changed the face of sports sponsorship. English sportswear company Umbro had paid for the rights to be the official sponsor of the championships, only to find that Nike had purchased all the poster space and advertising sites in and around Wembley Park Underground Station, which was the main travel hub for England’s national stadium, Wembley.

Nike Vs Reebok

This time the 1996 Atlanta Olympics provided a huge platform for the sportswear company to show it’s marketing muscle, and it wasn’t about to let the fact that Reebok held the official Olympic sportswear sponsorship get in the way of that.

Nike’s ambush of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics demonstrated just how effective ambush marketing can be. By saving the $50 million that an official sponsorship would have cost, Nike plastered the city in billboards, handed out “swoosh” banners to wave at the competitions and erected an enormous Nike center overlooking the stadium. When television audiences were asked to recall the names of official sponsors, 22% cited Nike, compared to only 16% who cited the official sponsors, Reebok.

During the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, Nike held a sponsors press conferences with the US basketball team despite Reebok being the official sponsor. One of the most audacious ambush marketing feats occurred when both Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, accepted the gold medal for basketball and covered up the Reebok logos on their kit. Both athletes were individually sponsored by Nike.

Nike Vs Converse

Converse was the official sponsor of the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles, yet Nike built large scale murals near the Los Angeles Coliseum, which displayed the Nike Logo and several of the athletes competing in the games wearing Nike attire.


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