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Brands Should Think Twice Before Adopting New Twist on Ambush Marketing

It has been roughly 35 years since the term “ambush marketing” entered the sports marketing lexicon, and although various media outlets are quick to highlight examples of the practice around each edition of global events such as the Olympic Games and FIFA World Cup, for most sponsorship practitioners both the concept itself and arguments over whether it is a legitimate and/or effective promotional tool have grown stale.

But a campaign by the Scottish beer brand BrewDog in advance of next week’s World Cup kick-off in Qatar has put a new spin on ambushing and made it a worthy topic of discussion once again. The challenger brand, which already had a reputation for attention-seeking marketing stunts, last week unveiled outdoor ads in the U.K. that took aim at FIFA corruption and Qatari human rights abuses and proclaimed BrewDog as the “Anti Sponsor of the World F*Cup.”

The ads promise that “all profits” from the company’s sales of its Lost Lager during the tournament “will go towards fighting human rights abuse.”

So rather than the classic ambush of suggesting an association with a prominent event without paying for rights to officially align with it, BrewDog’s message is a repudiation of the property and its organizers, as well as an indirect attack on any of the company’s competitors that have an official relationship with the various rights holders—FIFA, national teams, media, etc.—involved in the tournament.

Regardless of personal opinions about FIFA, Qatar, etc., the question for marketers is whether this is an advisable move for non-sponsors of events that are immersed in controversy.

For BrewDog, it appears the answer is “no.” Since its billboards appeared last week, it has faced social and traditional media backlash pointing out that the company agreed to sell its products in Qatar just a few months ago, plans to show World Cup matches at pubs it owns, and has faced its own recent scandal regarding mistreatment of workers.

But what if a brand didn’t come with BrewDog’s baggage? Why not latch on to public sentiment shared by a considerable number of consumers and use a global happening that attracts billions of eyeballs to take a principled stand on an important issue like human rights?

Here’s why not. Today’s consumers are both educated and skeptical. Rather than automatically embrace the message, they are more likely to view such a campaign as cynical and opportunistic, unless the brand has a well-established track record of commitments to the cause.

As with traditional ambush marketing tactics, the bottom line for this newer idea of being an “anti-sponsor” is that it lacks the most important element of sponsorships and partnerships: authenticity. And without authenticity, even the most clever, funny, eye-catching or heartstring-tugging marketing ideas are doomed to fail.

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