I read with great interest the recent study commissioned by Voxburner which revealed that young consumers aged 16-24 favour official sponsors over ambush marketing at sporting events. I’m sure that this will make happy reading for rights holders across many events but is it quite as simple as drawing a link that official designations provide the greatest returns? And where does the balance lie between paying ever increasing rights fees and taking an unofficial punt at ambush marketing?
There is little more emotive or engaging than sport which is the reason why so many brands enter this potentially lucrative territory. Over the next few months we will witness many brands looking to exploit the FIFA World Cup, some will have legitimate associations with either FIFA or the national teams, many will have no official tie with any of the relevant stakeholders. The question is, does this matter?
In order to answer this question it must be stated that sponsorship is an incredibly flexible medium, a sponsorship strategy must be written taking into account the brand’s maturity, positioning, challenges, objectives and budgets etc. One size does not fit all. As a result there will be some instances where ambush will definitely not work. For example, following the long term brand decline of Stella Artois, AB Inbev are making great strides in restoring the brand’s image. Part of this strategy is the sponsorship of Cannes, Wimbledon and The Open Championship, communicating that only premium brands, such as Stella Artois, have the credibility to be served at these highly prestigious occasions. It would simply not be possible to achieve this brand re-alignment through ambushing these events.
On a broader level, official sponsorships will also ensure two things. First is longevity, it is normal practise for a sponsorship contract term to be multi-year. As a result, historical research proves that, brands who have a long association within the sponsorship territory often reap the greatest benefits. Secondly, official sponsorships will normally ensure a higher level of activation. Due to the ever increasing rights fee levels brands are compelled to maximise the investment ensuring a higher activation spend over a longer period, milking the property’s benefits to its full potential.
Whereas, as a broad generalisation, brands which ambush sponsorships will only activate around a single event. As they are not present within the territory before or afterwards they believe, wrongly, that consumers will accept them because they are communicating relevantly within the space at the optimum time. A short term ambush strategy is unlikely to receive any cut through and will be seen as exploitative and rejected by consumers, this may account for why official sponsors are coming out on top of the Voxburner research.
However it is possible to achieve great results through ambush marketing as long as this is undertaken correctly. Brands which activate consistently within a particular territory, engaging consumers with value adding experiences create their own credibility. For example, Nike do not ever buy official tournament rights. Whilst they have kit supplier rights to both teams and players, which provides some credibility, they ambush the big events very heavily. However they have been adding value in the football (and the wider sports) territory for decades, their campaigns are eagerly awaited (the current ‘Risk Everything’ football film has had an astonishing 68 million you tube views already). As a result, it is a safe assumption that Nike will benefit from this World Cup because they have heritage, credibility and activate effectively around the platform. On a much smaller scale, Paddy Power are carving out a very engaging territory for themselves around ambushing events. They do not have any official status but are fast becoming a brand who is adding value through entertaining disruption. Their sky tweets during the 2012 Ryder Cup, for example, became the talking point and as a result they gained massive traction even though they had no formal association with the event.
So reverting back to the Voxburner research, are consumers really bothered about their brands having official status? To an extent, yes, but this is not the be all and end all. Consumers care about brands exploiting the thing they love, be it football, music or any other event that can be sponsored. If a brand does not have the official status but demonstrates that they are credibly adding value over a long period whilst also enhancing enjoyment of the occasion, then the consumer will respond positively towards them. Conversely, any brand who buys official rights but ignores the importance of engagement through interesting and targeted activation are unlikely to generated much awareness, even if they are noticed they will be perceived as exploitative and overly commercial achieving very little irrespective of their formal designation.
So in conclusion, whilst this research reveals a nice vox pop for rights holders, the priority for any brand embarking on sponsorship should be to consider what they are trying to achieve, whether they can occupy a credible position within the territory and to assess whether they are able to create an engaging activation plan. Only then can the “official sponsor versus ambush” question be answered.