Ambush Marketing: Is It a Good Fit for Your Small Business?

Ambush MarketingThe Super Bowl is not brought to you by Doris’ Muffin Shop. Or if it is, it’s because Doris found $40 million and couldn’t think of much better to do with it.

That’s because aligning yourself with a major event – be it sports or otherwise – is an expensive proposition. And unfortunately, this leaves most small-and-mid-sized businesses out in the cold.

And as we told you when preparing for the Super Bowl and World Cup, the laws about using those trademarks to promote your business are pretty tight. So what’s a small business to do?

It’s called ambush marketing and, while it’s been used with some success, a lot of things determine whether it’s a good fit for your small business.

What Is Ambush Marketing?

Put simply, ambush marketing is associating your business with a major event without having to pay to do so. It’s a thorn in the side of organizations like FIFA, the NFL and the International Olympic Committee, who make billions (with a B) from corporate sponsorships.

So when a company can’t afford to be the official beer of, say, the US log-rolling championships, they might send a bunch of people in their local craft beer’s T-shirts to stand on the sidelines for the 400 people watching on ESPN 6.

Branded materials might also be handed out around said log rolling venue, or you might opt to advertise on things like taxis and free ride services to have your name associated without any specific tie-in.

How Large Companies Do Ambush Marketing

The first large-scale example of ambush marketing was American Express’ efforts during the Olympic games of the 1980s and early 1990s. While Visa was the official sponsor, AmEx attempted to infiltrate the games with ads from the “Olympic Heritage Committee.” And while those were ultimately pulled, they did lead to Visa’s famous campaign telling consumers “But they DON’T take American Express.” AmEx countered with a campaign about sports that said “You’ll need a passport, but you won’t need a Visa.”

It went on from there, and AmEx CEO Jerry Welsh went on to coin the term “Ambush Marketing” when discussing these campaigns.

Other more recent examples include Dutch brewery Bavaria running an ad campaign prior to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa featuring women wearing orange miniskirts. When rows of women showed up seated together during a game, they were escorted out and two were actually arrested. But thanks to that stunt, Bavaria is now as associated with the World Cup as much as any of the paid sponsors … even with the legal bills.

Will Ambush Marketing Work For Small Business?

The problem, of course, is even these famous stunts cost a lot of money. After all, a whole row of prime, TV-viewable seats at a major sporting event don’t come cheap. And unless you’ve already got a block of seats behind home plate, that’s not an investment you can easily make.

So is large-scale ambush marketing going to work for your business? Probably not. But there are smaller things you can do around large events to tie-in, without really paying to tie in.

While larger events like the World Cup and Super Bowl have “safe zones” where almost no advertisement is allowed, many smaller events allow you to market your business outside by handing out branded promotional materials.

You can also crash it by doing good deeds in the course of promoting your business. For instance, you might have employees help give directions to visitors on the streets around the event wearing branded apparel for your business. Or give tickets to the event to a local charity. Or randomly go around paying people’s parking fees. You will get good press for it, and organizations are far less likely to sue if you are doing good. The bad press for them just isn’t worth it.

Using social media for things like contests, updates and other ways of promoting the event will tie you in as well. For instance, ask your social media followers to post pictures of themselves doing event-specific things, then have a photo caption contest and offer a prize to the winner. Or live-tweet the event. Though they are trademarked, many large sporting events are also cultural and the legal reach of the organizations is limited by people’s freedom to talk about it.


That said, there are things you absolutely cannot do. Sending a spectator with a sign advertising your business is a fast way to get kicked out. Similarly, using the trademarked names in anything you do is going to at best earn you a cease-and-desist letter. No, the NFL isn’t hunting down every small bar and restaurant that use the words “Super Bowl,” but if they wanted to they could.

Consult the regulations surrounding a major event before wasting time and money on a campaign that might be shut down as soon as it starts.

So while tempting as it might be to get into the ambush marketing game, it’s still probably cost-prohibitive on a larger scale. There are still things your small business can do, however, to tie yourself in. Just make sure you stay on the right side of the law, and in everyone’s good graces, and you can get your own un-official, official sponsorship.

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