Sponsorship ambush : the bottom line


(For most businesses, self-ambush is the greater risk)

The FIFA World Cup in Qatar is rapidly approaching and as always conversation turns to ambush, as we eagerly anticipate Nielsen’s media release on how adidas and Coca-Cola were bumped down the sponsor recall list by the sponsorship ambush of Nike and Pepsi. And Etihad of course.

The wonderfully grumpy Richard Gillis, host of the most excellent Unofficial Partner,  asked me to share our position on ambush on Podcast #279 – and as always Richard’s questions are highly stimulating. So we revisited a subject we hadn’t touched in a good many years – and the exercise brought a slightly new perspective.

What exactly is sponsorship ambush?

The definition of ambush is often perplexing. Because it covers a broad spectrum of activity. If you sponsor the broadcast feed of the FIFA World Cup in Africa, is it ambush? If you sponsor a clutch of National Governing Bodies operating in the same territory as an Olympic and Paralympic Games, is it ambush? If, in the case of Nike, you already sponsor a host of teams and players in the FIFA World Cup, and your activate these assets around the FIFA World Cup, is it ambush? If, in the case of Bavaria, you sneak 24 young ladies in orange dresses into a FIFA World Cup match, is it ambush? Really? It entirely depends on your definition of ambush.

And it’s hard to know which axis to measure this wide spectrum of cases against. The law? Morality? Intent? Scale? Impact? 

Professor Simon Chadwick and Nick Burton illustrate the challenge. They twice collaborated on research into ambush. In 2010 they created a typology of the many different guises of sponsorship ambush, identifying 11 basic approaches. But in their 2018 paper, they’d opted to simplify that back into three broad categories – incursive, obtrusive and associative – but to our mind, even these categories often overlap.

The only helpful definition is based on legality

Our approach is pragmatic. The only helpful definition of ambush is based on its legality.

The laws relating to ambush, wherever they’re enacted – from Moscow to Los Angeles – hinge on the twin notions of copyright infringement and passing off. Copyright infringement is a black and white matter : are you using protected marques or terms? Let’s not forget, ambush protection was originally introduced to prevent knock off merchandise : legally indefensible copyright infringement of the marques is largely the domain of counterfeit goods and bootleg merchandise.  IP infringement really shouldn’t be necessary.

Passing off is a trickier issue. Passing off is a grey area – the at times ultra-fine distinction between creating association with an event and deceiving people into crediting you as an official partner of the event. This grey area is often exploited by the rights protection teams of rightsholder to justify a hyper-aggressive approach to rights protection. For both Vancouver 2010 and London 2012, there was media push back against unnecessary and heavy-handed rights protection.

The story of Scotia Bank’s Show your Colours campaign, for Vancouver 2010, recounted by Jim Tobin here, illuminates the issue of passing off. For Scotia Bank – along with many academics and the Canadian public, the issue was not one of ambush, but whether it’s possible to privatise national pride. 

Right answer, wrong question

Going back to the inevitable media reports, of which brands are most recognised as sponsors it’s a question of right answer, wrong question.

Highly creative and salient advertising by unofficial partners will generate more recall by consumers than average advertising by official partners. But (let’s be honest) most consumers couldn’t really care about ‘official’ status – it’s a meaningless sobriquet.

So when consumers are troubled to think about the identity of official partners, rather than rack their brain, they will default to the easier question : which brands do I associate with the event? In terms of research, it’s still a useful assessment – of cut-through as well as residual association, but the question is more a statement about the meaninglessness of official status than about ambush.

How dare they?

There’s a lot of righteous indignation around ambush. From two sources in particular: major rightsholders and major sponsors. Wonder why that is?

Despite the rhetoric, morality is not a prevailing argument with this subject. Large corporates are anyway far less sensitive to morality than to social pressure. For a large corporate, any legal advantage is a fair advantage. The huge shift that’s ongoing regarding business attitudes to the subject of ESG is certainly not the result of moral enlightenment. And if we want to talk about the morality of corporate behaviour, there are far more pressing issues than sponsorship ambush – like pricing systems, environmental impact, sexism etc

After all, the question of morality, or immorality usually comes down to a negative impact on individuals or society – but I’ve never seen a major rightsholder claim to be struggling, let alone go under, because of ambush. Ambush is intrinsically parasitical – it requires a host. The position of ambusher is by default a minority position. In other words, no existential harm done nor likely to be done to the rightsholder. 

One might imagine that – given ambush is not really an existential threat for rightsholders – the real emotional heat comes from the large investors in sponsorship rights. And that rightsholders inevitably become the amplification chamber for that emotion. Hypervigilant rights protection is a defence that rightsholders adopt in response to sponsor pressure.

No, this isn’t about morality, it’s entirely about brand and culture. The face offs between adidas and Nike, Coca-Cola and Pepsi (please note we put the Official Partner first) is also nothing to do with category exclusivity – but everything to do with big brand statements.

Refreshingly anti-establishment

Some brands choose to bake independence of mind, or attitude, or rebellion baked into their brand identity.  Paddy Power has done an extraordinary job of associating itself with the idea of ambush marketing in sport – it’s probably the best example ever for a British Isles audience. But Red Bull is still a guerilla brand because it never adopts the etablishment approach. Nike likewise. Ambush at a brand level is about saying, I’m an outsider, a challenger, I’m anti-establishment, I play by different rules, by my own rules.

You can see that in Nike. They are most certainly part of the establishment, but to themselves, they’re not – because their focus is more on the individual than on the organisation around them. I remember a conversation with the estimable Ed Elworthy when he Global Brand Comms Director for Football  at Nike at the time, and telling him that Nike had sponsored Rio 2016. He wouldn’t have it. It was so outside of the brand’s culture that he couldn’t believe it.

Adidas on the other hand is a great upporter of the establishment – in the best way. It genuinely believes that it’s the system and infrastructure which enables the individual to shine. They also espouse teamwork and collective responsibility in a way that Nike doesn’t. 

The generational dimension

There’s also a generational dimension in this tension: the eternal tension between youth and the establishment. A young attitude likes to cut through the crap and especially needless formality to cock a snook at the establishment. Which is how I understand Pepsi’s persistent guerilla activity around the World Cup. We’re not saccharine, we’re rock and roll.

Simon Lowden, formerly CMO of Pepsi International, explained their approach in language not dissimilar to Nike : we’re on the side of the individual (not the establishment). At the time we received that quite cynically as a defensive rationalisation of their position : rereading that interview, I’d now see his words as a more genuine expression of Pepsi’s internal belief system.

We’re not saccharine, we’re rock and roll.

Does ambush sponsorship enjoy more creative freedom?

It’s often said that there’s more creative freedom for ambush marketers and that’s true in some key areas: it’s far easier to be ironic or humorous if you’re an unofficial partner. You aren’t required to respect the official timetable or schedule your activity according to the rightsholder’s priorities. And it’s a genuine freedom not to have to refer to the event by its legal name or be forced to wade through the sticky treacle of collaboration with other partners. Sorry, Partners

But to blame these restrictions for lack of creativity is a cop-out. The fault for lack of creativity generally lies within the systems of the sponsor systems. ABI consistently delivers excellent creative and also won a Cannes Lion this year for corporate creativity.  Coca-Cola, on the other hand, is very hit and miss. 

The risk : design by committee

Coca-Cola is an interesting example.

We can only talk about its creative process with any direct experience, thanks to the fabulous Thierry Borra. Its process to engage with the Games is the best developed of any Partner and nothing if not thorough.

But that is also its challenge. Its desire to maximise every ounce of value – across strategic brand, consumer and channel marketing objectives, local and global; its heavy dependence on supermarket distribution; inevitably tend towards design by committee. One senses a creative freedom within Pepsi that is not simply a freedom from rightsholder contractuals.

And that is where I intuit another source of indignation by official partners – frustration. Despite being the formally recognised Partner, despite the wealth of additional rights and benefits that Partnership brings, they cannot reliably muster the calibre of creative response that’s called for. They come second in the one race that everyone sees.

Nicer design. Less energy.

What's the defence?

The only defence is a good offence – but here are a few side-notes.


The comfort to Partners is that, without the endorsement of the official marques, or the assets available to an official partner, it’s a tall order for any brand to devise and manage a campaign to run alongside the Games at anything like the scale required to have comparable impact. The toolbox of Olympic status and assets provide sufficient safeguard against any ambush.

The only value open to the ambusher is brand salience – and the short-term sales activations which that supports. And that is where the arguments against ambush should really net out. If sponsors are unable to take advantage of such extensive assets, they have no one to blame but themselves.

For most businesses, self-ambush is a far greater risk.


Whingeing, of any kind, is not a good look – as a person or as a corporate. The only good look is to take it on the chin. After all, even though you’ve lost the creative game, you shouldn’t have lost the commercial one.

After all, the value of sponsorship rights doesn’t reside in the title of Official Partner. It rests in the ability to use the marquees, to offer access, unique experiences and premiums to leverage value throughout your supply chain, to build local distribution, to build community- and merchandise. None of these options are really open to ambush marketers.


The other evolution we’d like to see in sponsors and rightsholders alike is in their appreciation of the ecosystem.

Apple for us exemplifies this better than any other brand: the vast range of peripheral suppliers for Apple’s core products occupy a marketplace that Apple could certainly dominate. But instead, Apple are happy to sit at the centre, realising that this ecosystem is a strength, not a weakness. So it is with major events: the larger the pool, the larger the ripple. The more peripheral noise, to the smart event marketer, the better.

We love sponsorship ambush

We love sponsorship ambush. We love the creativity. The zag to the zig. The opportunity to differentiate. The challenger mentality it elicits. The FIFA World Cup in particular would be duller without it.