How Not to be Ambushed

The Winter Olympics are in full swing and the organisers are busy implementing draconian “anti-ambush” laws. Too bad they won’t work.

Anti-ambush legislation is mainly about tightening existing IP laws, bolting on a few proximity laws, and trying to control old-school communication channels. It is pedantic to the point of restricting freedom of expression – just ask the people of Vancouver – but still doesn’t stop ambush marketing.

Rather than “we’ve got you covered” platitudes, major events should front up with some home truths. They won’t, however, so I will. There are three major things that a sponsor can do to protect themselves.

Ensure your brand is a natural match

The first thing you need to do, before you commit to any major sponsorship, is to ensure that your brand is a natural match to the sponsorship – better than your competitors. One exercise for determining the fit (and your competitors’) goes like this:

First, make a list of all of your brand’s attributes and values. Describe your brand really thoroughly. Then do the same for your key competitors. Go through the lists and cross out any attributes and values that you share with your competitors, because they don’t count. Now, you’re left with the ways in which you are different. Compare these lists with a list of all of the attributes and values of the event you’re considering to determine which brand is the best match.

If your brand is clearly the best fit, it will be hard work for any of your competitors to create a strategic ambush. On the other hand, if one or more of your competitors is a better natural match than your brand, don’t invest. You will be a sitting duck for ambush. Even if they don’t do any overt ambush activity, people will tend to assume they’re the sponsor. That’s what is referred to as a “natural ambush”.

Think outside the event

Major events cost a lot of money, so it’s easy to think that’s where the value lays and concentrate your leverage on the event itself. Bad idea.

Of course, you should leverage the event itself, but do not ignore the larger event experience. There is a whole world of event experience outside of the major event you’re sponsoring. Just ask the people of Vancouver whether they’re having an event experience. I’ll be having an event experience watching those nuts on luges on TV at the pub. All the chatter in social media is part of the event experience. The real value is in the personal experiences, the stories, of the people you are targeting. That isn’t controlled by the event and laws can’t control it either. The winner in the sponsor vs ambusher competition is the one who leverages the entire event experience.

Add value

The question is then, how do you leverage that entire event experience. Do you try to “own” the experience? Turn your message up to eleven? Again, that’s a bad idea.

First off, it won’t work, because the whole point of the larger experience is that it is owned and controlled by the people, making it the most authentic forum around the event. Disrespect that – try to “own” it – at your own peril.

Instead, concentrate on adding value to that event experience. Improve the not-great stuff and amplify the best stuff, with the goal being to provide small, meaningful benefits that will demonstrate your understanding of your target markets, enhance their experience, and make your brand a welcome and appreciated part of it. If you don’t, an ambusher will.
A good example of this in Vancouver is the Bell Ice Cube, hosted by Bell (Canada). They have created a purpose-built venue that will operate as a free live site and host a live show every afternoon with Olympians. Yes, they will certainly be showcasing their products, but they are also creating an epicentre where people who may not have got tickets to the events can meet Olympians and immerse themselves in the Olympic experience. A number of Games sponsors are doing live sites, some are embarking on great social media campaigns – the key for them, and for you, is to think outside the event.

Ambush prevention really isn’t that tough, but it’s not the law or the event that will save you. In fact, ambush prevention has very little to do with defence and everything to do with your choices, your creativity, and your thoroughness. Sponsor well and there is no room for ambush.
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Kim Skildum-Reid
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