Is Touting Past Relationships at Opportune Times Ambush Marketing?

The Performance Research team always has sponsorship on the brain — even when we’re shopping for cereal! We recently snapped photos of two cereal brands shelved side by side at our local grocer. The sight immediately caught our “sponsor eye.”

Quick, which of the cereal brands below officially sponsors the Olympic Games?

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If you said Wheaties, you’re forgiven — but mistaken.

With a quick glance, it seems as if both of the cereal giants could be sponsors of the Olympic Games. But look closer. The Kellogg’s box has the iconic Olympic rings logo emblazoned on it, along with language (“official sponsor”) that ties them directly to the Games. The Wheaties box? Not so much.

That’s because Kellogg’s is the official cereal brand of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), and their Corn Flakes box is part of a marketing campaign driving home that official sponsorship to consumers. Wheaties, on the other hand, has no current official relationship with the USOC or the Olympic Games.

The re-release of past Wheaties boxes featuring Olympic champions at such an opportune time — leading right up to the 2012 Summer Games — could be considered ambush marketing, a tactic that can be cause for concern for those official sponsors (like Kellogg’s) who spend millions of dollars on officially associating their brand with the Olympics.

It’s a recurring issue. Olympic season after Olympic season, unofficial “supporters” of the Olympics elbow their way into the top of consumers’ minds as bon-a-fide Olympic sponsors by using ambush marketing tactics.

We conducted research during the 1994 and 1996 Games that lent insight into consumers’ perceptions of official Olympic sponsor brands. Often, ambush sponsors outpaced official sponsors (e.g., ambusher Nike vs. official sponsor Reebok) in terms of sponsor recall and belief that these non-Olympic companies were doing more than many official sponsors to support the Olympics.

More recently, we collected data after the 2010 Vancouver Games and found that ambush sponsorship marketing was still alive and well. In particular, Subway, who used Michael Phelps in a campaign leading up to the 2010 Games, was strongly associated with the Olympics that year even though they weren’t officially sponsoring the Games. So was Verizon, who used the U.S. Speed Skating team in ads surrounding Vancouver but had no official partnership in 2010. Full details of that report can be found here.

The topic raises a lot of questions: is spending big bucks on official Olympic sponsorship worth it? Is it ethical to lead consumers to believe your brand is associated with the Games when there is no official sponsor relationship there? We welcome your comments on this one.

Also, a challenge: keep your eyes out for all of the official and not-so-official Olympic campaigns going on this month.  Send us your pics, we’d love to see what you uncover.

Just as we’ve done since the 1992 games, we’re planning to conduct similar research for the 2014 Olympic Games.  As always, don’t hesitate to send us a message or ask us questions if you want to learn more about what we’re up to.

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July 5, 2012 · 10:54 am

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