Sponsorship : self-ambush is the greatest risk

rights protection blog

Extract from Working the Olympics, 2012

Rights protection is a critical issue for Partners – but more so for the IOC and OCOG: when your primary sales asset is a logo – you need to take good care of it.

As a consequence, the domestic brand protection teams are virtually the first in operation and warning shots begin to fire from the earliest days of host city appointment. The combined Olympic trademarks, although protected under copyright law, are commonly reinforced through additional legislation. London, significantly, legislated to create an extensive zone where London 2012 partners have first option on advertising.

In the sense of legally indefensible copyright infringement of the marques is largely the domain of counterfeit goods and bootleg merchandise. Although a 2010 study* of ambush sponsorship listed 11 highly nuanced variations, ambush for Partners is more like to take one of three forms.

The first, guerrilla, is tactical and aggressive: brands aim directly to subvert value from a partner’s investment by direct or oblique allusion to the partner, the classic brand feud – Coca-Cola and Pepsi, adidas and Nike, Visa and Amex, Ansett and Qantas. Whilst guerilla ambush of this kind has driven the largest headlines, the exemplary treatment meted out to Amex and Nike by the IOC (as described by Michael Payne in ‘Olympic Turnaround’), and increasingly refined legislation ensures that its incidence and relevance is limited.

The second is, essentially, promotional. Promotionally, the Games loom large in the retail calendar – outside of the Olympics, nothing else exists during the June to September of the Summer Games in particular. Most ambush takes the form of sport-themed promotions, usually defensive, fighting to retain some share of voice and mind in a very cluttered and competitive retail environment.


The third is a more strategic platform ambush, and consists of brands which seek to take advantage of the overwhelming public mood and interest in the Games. This can take many forms, from sponsoring ambassadors, National Governing Bodies of Sport, participation initiatives – to themed advertising which studiously avoids the legal flashpoint touchstone of ‘passing off’. Providing the brand is not judged to be attempting to suggest direct association, there is little protection.

Although rights-holders and official partners frequently describe ambush pejoratively as parasitic and unethical, Jim Tobin’s account of Scotia Bank’s ‘Show your Colours’ campaign offers a more balanced perspective of the opportunities and limitations which apply to non official partners.

The comfort to Partners is that, without the endorsement of the Olympic 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. For most businesses, self-ambush is a far greater risk.

*  ‘The evolving sophistication of ambush marketing : a typology of strategies’, Prof Simon Chadwick and Nicholas Burton