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No Sponsorship Required: Another Call to End the Ambush Marketing Debate

On the 100th day before Tokyo 2020 is set to open, An Ad Age “News Alert” went out with the subject line “How Peloton Is Tapping into Olympics Fever without a Sponsorship.”

And so it begins.

Attention is already focusing on how brands plan to capitalize on the Games. That is a good thing for sports marketers on all sides.

But the unnecessary phrase at the end of Ad Age’s headline portends another round of debate over whether those who have not paid a fee to be an official Olympic sponsor are simply being smart, or are, in the vernacular of a now 35-year-old phrase, “ambushing” the Olympic movement.

Is it inevitable that this argument will take place around every Olympic Games, FIFA World Cup and Super Bowl, as well as plenty of other high-profile events? Or can we agree that it is a needless discussion based on a false premise?

Having made this plea on multiple occasions previously, I fear I know the answer. Yet I will persist in stating my case once again.

So-called ambush marketing is accused of harming the organizations behind, and participants in, the world-class properties it surrounds. The argument goes: If a company can be identified with an event without paying for the association, it undermines the value of official partnerships and could diminish interest from prospective sponsors.

That would be conceivable if a marketer could get away with violating trademark rights, using IP it is not entitled to or crossing other legal boundaries, but that is extremely unlikely, not to mention that no company of consequence would even attempt such a thing given the potential damage to its reputation.

Over three-and-a-half decades, there is no evidence that any official sponsor or other business partner has paid less for its association with the Olympics, World Cup or other top-tier property because non-sponsors sought to imply a connection through smart promotions, clever messaging, PR stunts, etc. On the contrary, the number of partners, their rights fees and the properties’ earned revenues have escalated nonstop, in some cases astronomically.

Forced to concede that no actual harm has been done, opponents turn to the fairness argument, as a respected colleague once did in using the analogy that like a boorish guest at a gourmet potluck whose sole offering is a bag of chips, “ambushers” are plundering the fruits of others’ labors without contributing much, if anything, to the collective.

Although that behavior by an individual is worthy of castigation, we’re not talking about a gathering of friends and family. This is business, and unless actions cross a legal or truly ethical line, we can leave the idea of fairness at the door. The “ambusher” either is seeking to capitalize on the thematic space of a major happening—without infringing on rights—or looking for legitimate counteraction to a competitor that has exclusive sponsor status.

If Peloton, or any brand, can actually tap into Olympic fever without a sponsorship and achieve their objectives, good for them. The official partners I’m familiar with feel much the same way. They know the best defense is a great offense. Rather than worry about another brand’s creativity (even a direct competitor), their focus is on innovative, meaningful and relevant ways of bringing their partnerships to life for their customers and consumers.

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