The practical guide to sponsorship ambush

ambush blog

Here’s our essential guide to sponsorship ambush.

From the outside, it’s a scary subject. The large rights-holders talk a good game on sponsorship ambush and rights protection. Sponsors demand it.

Because at every Olympics and every World Cup, there are a host of irritating minor infractions : brands taking advantage of the timing of a cease and desist letter that allows them up to 48 hours to walk back their position. It must be hugely frustrating for the rights protection teams because, mostly, you’re going through the motions.

And as a sponsor, beyond the challenge of pacifying senior management – who develop ambush paranoia during major events, you’re likely to have your global markets feeding you a flood of minor local ambush reports with demands for you to action your contractual rights protection services. It’s hectic.

But actually, ambush – in the sense that’s described in the marketing media – isn’t rocket science and it’s not difficult to avoid the rights protection missive in the first place.

Here’s the to-do and not-to-do list.

Do set clear objectives

Of course, as a strategy agency we would say this but any guide to sponsorship ambush has to start with the big question. What’s the goal?

  • undermine a competitor?
  • maintain share of voice?
  • tactical promotional activity?
  • achieve cut-through and salience?
  • provide a strategic platform for brand-building and sales?


As with ‘official’ sponsorship, each objective clearly has different requirements in terms of assets and creative approach.

Don’t infringe copyright

Pretty straightforward. There’s really no excuse for contravening copyright. Of course it happens (see cease and desist above), but if you’re ambushing the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ don’t use any of these terms, marques or font. The rights-holder will often publish guidelines to educate businesses about the extent of the protected terms – and visuals.

Host nations these days tend to enact additional temporary legal restrictions to extend their control beyond the scope of normal regulation – but these will be publicised in said guidelines.

For a great overview of the legal position, the best post by a law firm on ambush is by Lewis Silkin here : well worth a read.

Curiously, the term World Cup per se does not constitute a protected term – because the FIFA World Cup is but one of many.

Associate away - but don’t pass off

Sorry, passing off is an archaic British legal term – generally the legislation will relate to misrepresentation or misleading advertising : the act of causing confusion in the minds of consumers, deliberately or otherwise.

Passing off essentially refers to the use of non-protected imagery and language in such a way that it suggests an official relationship, so – the use of colours, visual references, in this case to Qatar and especially football-related, such as its stadia, prominent mention of Qatar 2022 or Doha even, you get the picture.

This is a grey area, as we’ve posted elsewhere and so a judgment call – but between your own common sense, your agency and your legal counsel, you should be able to navigate this safely. The story of Scotia Bank is informative in this respect.

The easiest way to negate this is with an explicit statement. This was our response to both LOCOG and the IOC when promoting our services for Olympic and Paralympic Partners, calling out our independence from either party – and more humorously, this is Paddy Power territory. The point of ambush is often to create distance from official partners so an explicit statement is not only a clear counter to any charge of misrepresentation but a versatile platform to express that distance.

Do focus on the creative

Whether it’s TVC, OOH or SM, the creative generally carries the day. It’s what people talk about and remember. It drives buzz, WOM, fame and salience. So, even though sponsorship assets should offer official partners infinitely more opportunities to drive value, the creative has disproportionate value.

The great ambushers always make it look easy and that’s what Paddy Power consistently does with its creative. It nails the insight and focuses on the popular ironies that fans observe in the major events it lampoons.

Most uniquely, it’s perfected the art of flipping: it sends media and public in one direction with the first creative, and then flips them with the second, giving two bits of the moment. In any good guide to sponsorship ambush, creative focus is a must.

Do take advantage of your unofficial position

Being an official partner certainly comes with restraints. Timing is challenged because of approvals processes. Joint promotions with brands who are not official partners are discouraged. Focus is divided between comms / engagement and the logistical nightmare of large scale hospitality. You need to connect your campaign to the milestones of the major event, the 1000 days to go, the release of tickets, the draw etc. Your language needs to respect the naming conventions of the rights holder –  the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022TM for example – which can quickly bog down your copy.

And your tonal range is severely restricted by the rights holder and also the natural limitations of your position as an official partner. In other words, you need to be: supportive and positive, celebratory, universal and inclusive. Now those are not unhelpful parameters : the major sporting events in particular transcend sport to become celebrations of a global community. But.

But it also excludes much of the informality of major events. For the World Cup, football and banter go together as well as football and beer. And a brand’s ability to mirror and engage with its audience depends to a large extent on its language. But sarcasm and la prise de la pisse are off the menu for FIFA. We mostly choose to undermine formality of events to humanise our relationships. From this point of view, major event sponsors are trapped within the formality of the major rightsholders.

A long way of saying : humour has a large part to play.

Don’t sound generic

Another dimension of unofficial partnership which can be less than helpful is the pressure to address the mass audience. The value of an event such as the FIFA World Cup is its global relevance so brands automatically think in terms of universal comms. But the term universal can also be a synonym for generic. According to our guidelines, sponsorship ambush doesn’t have the luxury to be generic – it needs to create stronger relevance.

Do sponsor selectively

Just because you don’t want to or can’t afford to be the official partner of a major event doesn’t mean you should dismiss sponsorship. Sponsoring a part of the broader ecosystem around a major event in particular brings legitimacy and audience. And the two assets of choice for sponsorship ambush have to be ambassadors and broadcast. Why?

Well firstly because a well-chosen ambassador will humanise and amplify your message, bring you credibility in the space – and enhance your permission to speak. Partnership scoping in this context is acutely delicate because your ambassador at worst can betray your brand values but at best become a living embodiment : the stakes are high.

Broadcast sponsorship on the other hand gives you visibility and comes closest to conveying official status. Whilst broadcast rights in many territories will be controlled by the rightsholder, there are many territories in which broadcast rights are available and these in themselves can offer a legitimate promotional platform.

Much more to be said here, but the first paragraph carries the main point : official partnership of some kind is perfect to drive unofficial partnership elsewhere


Official partners who leverage their rights stand to benefit far more from sponsorship than any unofficial partner. Even if terms of social media, as this old report from NM Incite shows, the larger window of opportunity for official partners means they should dominate.

But non partners should think constructively about the value they can generate. On balance, we would encourage brands to ambush – as a periodic opportunity to demonstrate their relevance and connection to their audience.

This guide to sponsorship ambush just touches the surface – but we hope it will give you at least a sense that sponsorship ambush is worth considering.