Beating around the ambush

Brands have been at war since the time that cow was stamped on top of its rear. With commoditization of most product categories the only other option to being at out and out war is to play out zero sum games. As ideal as socialist ideology, nobody’s prepared to play stalemates in a consumerist society. So being on the offensive is the only choice most consumer brands are left with. To achieve this end there are a number of traditional marketing methods,One such effective way of hurting competition and winning quick quarters is ambush.

With immediate profits to be won, you don’t wait, you don’t watch, okay maybe from the bunker. Sneaky Guerrilla is the call of the day. Think about it, if you’re in a hyper competitive market (Cola, sports apparel industry for e.g.) how long can you sustain the race as an ethical tortoise? So sometimes you hide and attack when the opponent is blissfully unaware. Unethical? Maybe. But, does it work? Well, if done right it sure gets the eye balls and the attention. But,hey, didn’t slow and steady, win it in the end? We’ll see about that.

Two birds in an ambush

So, what does ambush marketing mean? Put simply, it’s a fancy term for a form of guerrilla marketing where a brand attacks its competitor when they least expect it.
Let’s take sporting events for example. Here a non-sponsor gets the consumer confused into thinking that they’re the sponsors. How? Strategically displaying their banner/print ads during the sporting events or say they’re TV ads, then make a mention of the event in such a way, that no legal disputes ensue but they get the point home as well. Yes, lot of creativity there. The mighty hare rises and munches on his carrot in vengeance, fixes his brainy glasses to take on the tortoise. Puts on a show by attempting something radical. As consumers it’s a different kind of stimulus, difficult to ignore so ADHDed we notice brand hare. Usually it’s a quick sprint, or a Trojan horse, having said that building a brand, especially a challenger brand is often about winning short important battles on the way to the winning the war.
Here’s how:

Nike stole the thunder and wrote the future

Take a look at the commercial below, which was launched by Nike weeks before the 2010 FIFA world cup campaign. Adidas was the official sponsor of the event and Nike took them by surprise by launching this campaign weeks in advance. Burn. Nike is one brand which has unapologetically and out rightly embraced ambush marketing. It’s even said that if you’re a big name in footwear, you have been ambushed by Nike (Converse in Los Angeles 1984; Reebok in Atlanta 1996; Adidas on just about every continent in every two or four year competition) and it went all out with this campaign and left no footballs unturned in ensuring that the ad was a run-away hit where it hurt. It had a lot going for it, visually extravagant, celebrating football the way it must at the world cup and massive names. As expected, Nike with well time creative trumped Adidas by simply making the magnitude of the occasion so personal to the big footballers featuring. “Write the Future”, OR….

In a survey published by The Nielsen Company, it was claimed that it was indeed NIKE who benefitted more from the event, in comparison to official sponsor Adidas. The campaign was so successful that some people misunderstood NIKE as the official sponsors of the World Cup (wasn’t that the whole point really?).

Bavaria…color ‘em orange

Another incident that happened during the FIFA world cup 2010 was when 36 women entered the South Africa’s soccer city stadium for the Netherland Vs Denmark match. As you can see in the above pic, they are all dressed in orange minis with Bavaria printed on them(see image below) The official beer sponsor for this event was Budweiser, but Bavaria very smartly dressed up the women in orange (the Dutch national color) and dressed them in big numbers. The reaction of those in charge however was swift and ruthless. 2 women were arrested and later released. But was the campaign successful even with its fair share of collateral damage?

The strategy certainly got its fair share of eye balls. Young women wearing orange minis cheering their team on, predictably, the cameras had to turn towards them en masse, capturing shots that would grab the attention of picture editors worldwide.
If it was a gimmick cynically designed to capture the attention of the world’s media, then it was wildly successful. Big ideas they say are simple. Overnight newspapers all over the world carried similar pictures talking about Bavaria and suddenly the brand went from Bavaria who? To Bavaria woohoo!

The interesting thing to note here is that, in both the cases (Nike and Bavaria), the strategy implemented was that of ambush marketing during the same event (FIFA world cup) but they were totally different in the way they were executed. Now is perhaps a good time to go text book (ever so little bit) to state the 2 kinds of Ambush marketing strategies:
Association Ambushing- the non-sponsor gives the impression of being an official sponsor by using words or symbols associated with the event (Used by Nike)
Intrusion Ambushing- the non-sponsor piggybacks on the media and spectator exposure of the event by, for e.g. advertising near event venues (Bavaria)

It happens also in India:

Even though it’s against the DNA of most brands to ambush as the unwritten word is that advertising is essentially about highlighting the feature(s) of your product not piggyback those of competition. We still have seen many instances (and thank god for that) of ambush, which are not just limited to sporting events but also to product launches in hypercompetitive sectors like Cola market, domestic airline sectors etc.

Some examples:

Pepsi- Nothing Official about it

The most notable and widely successful ambush marketing campaign of the past decade was carried out by Pepsi during the 1996 cricket world cup where Coca Cola was the official sponsor. People still remember Pepsi’s “Nothing official about it” campaign. With such clever use of words, and wise ad slots during the world cup, the campaign gathered so much attention that it almost became synonymous with the ’96 world cup..Pepsi struck gold and reflected away the entire limelight from Coca Cola . The campaign was irreverent, cheeky, irresistibly charming and highly successful, considering that the campaign is still fresh in the minds of even us ADHDed. Brand recall? Check.

(The series of ads for the ‘nothing official about it’ campaign)
So, is it safe to interpret then, that ambush is only involved during big events with bigger names? Think again, Watson, it’s not that elementary.

(More examples of ambush in pics)

P&G’s Pantene vs. HUL’s dove- Dove dove me do!

Now here’s one category, where no one would’ve anticipated an ambush. Sure, it’s a hypercompetitive market. Sure, the fighting sides involve two of the biggest names in FMCG. Sure, we should’ve anticipate some guerillas being unleashed. But no we didn’t. Why?
Maybe, because the category is safe where advertising precedent is research driven highlighting key product attribute(s)?
However, this example shows that ambush is possible in any sector, category, event, non-event, launch, and non-launch.
The plot goes like this, one fine day last year Mumbai woke up to the hoardings that screamed ‘A Mystery Shampoo!! 80% women say is better than anything else’. P&G was prepping up for a product launch. Fair enough. But the flanks weren’t up. HUL saw this as an opportunity to score an ambush in the sky. In less than a week even when Pantene’s hoardings were still standing tall amongst the Mumbai skyline, there was another, all across the city that announced ‘There is no mystery. Dove is the No.1 shampoo’. IMHO (we’re a youth marketing blog you see, catch up) they should’ve at least thanked the source of inspiration. Okay, maybe not. It was classic ambush advertising. Something nobody expected in this sector (people including the experts associated ambush with names like Jet & Kingfisher, Coke & Pepsi. See pic above)
But HUL created one big hairy mess for P&G and stole its thunder in style. This Ambush strategy was a national campaign and took just one day from brief to execution. Massive compliments to the HUL and O&M teams.

Ambush to Wrong bush?-Belly flopped

Ambush marketing is risky business. You need to know when the right time to attack your competitor is. You need to know the right way to max attention. You need to know how far to go with an ambush without catching fire yourself. Disruptive, yes.Destructive? No.
Here’s a little example of ambush gone wrong.

Event: The 2004 Athens Olympics.
Ambusher: A tutu wearing prankster representing GoldenPalace.com.
Now, goldenpalace.com is an online gaming site which clearly wanted to do something that would make everyone stand up, take notice, go to their site, subscribe and start playing games. Except they did not think things through. During a synchronized swimming competition, a Canadian man named Ron Bensimhon sprang out of his stands and clothes revealing his oh so pretty tutu and tights. The next thing you know, he belly flops into the pool. Some divers were apparently put off by the intervention and subsequently failed to complete their dives. Tutu guy was sentenced to Greek prison and was let off when he paid 200 Euros as fine. Now, it’s understandable why golden palace wanted to hijack Olympic attention but, you do not want to distract and ruin a game by being a party pooper now, do you? What’s worst, the guy was nicknamed ‘fool in the pool’. GoldenPalace is probably foolsparadise.com now. As they say, if you do the crime, you’ll do the time.
Ambush strategies may seem fun, exciting, shocking when executed effectively, but if you fail to plan and execute well, you do run the risk of being remembered for the wrong reasons.

What’s law got to do with it?

Now one might ask where does law stand in such cases. Can someone just blindside you and doesn’t compensate? Yes, usually, that is. Because, unlike piracy and counterfeiting Ambush is not protected under IPR. The best defense is offense. Keep your flanks up ‘cos law is out of the picture. But the real question is that of ethics. Sure ambush is unethical but who decides anymore? The lines have blurred and the attacks are rampant. Nobody is doing anything illegal. But who loses in the end? The obvious answer is the one who is ambushed, but there is other collateral damage in the form of valuations of corporate sponsorship. How? Ambush reduces the effectiveness of the sponsor’s advertising strategy while undermining the quality and value of the sponsorship opportunity that the event owner is selling. So ambush marketing can sometimes affect the value of the property itself. Brand marketers now see “official” sponsorship as equivalent to flushing wads of cash down a bottomless toilet if not protected. This leaves organizers in a lull as they are becoming more and more strapped for the means with which to host the events.

Preventive measures against ambush:
Identify your Achilles heel and protect it. So you develop a plan to ambush you is perhaps a good start. Once you know how to ambush yourself, you know what to protect and how to counter.

Second if you’re the official sponsor of an event, don’t be shy. Let everyone know about the nature of your association. And do it weeks in advance, continuously and effectively. Keeping your guard down too long isn’t exactly professional. Penetrate mind shares in such a way that they talk about the sporting event and your products in the same breathe. Too much? It’s just gotto be done. Else, it isn’t money very well spent.

Another preventive measure is to minimize the opportunity to ambush for your competitor. Limit the non sponsor’s ability to advertise at or in the close proximity of the event venue. Keep ‘em away, we say. This advertising could take place in many forms. The easiest is to control, which means, the prohibition of advertising by anyone in the same category other than sponsors in the event venue itself. This concept has been referred to as the clean-stadium strategy. Also, you can sign an agreement with the players where they cannot endorse a rival product.ICC (International Cricket Council) does this very well to protect the interests of its event sponsors.. This agreement includes a period prior to and after the completion of the competition in addition to the period during which the actual competition takes place.

So Prevention, check, but how do you attack?

When it really comes down to it, everything is fair in love, war and ambush marketing. So let’s look at the lessons learnt from the ambushers discussed above:

Nike: Engage in advertising that coincides with a sponsored event. Nike, the big daddy of ambush marketing, ensured that weeks before the world cup started, it had its advertising campaigns in place. When the viewers see an ad which is funny, energetic, inspiring and talking about the event that is going to take place in the near future, they’re likely to associate you with the event. Nike teaches us to go all out. No holds barred.
This also calls for entrusting the right people, those who not only know the brand well but also literally have the balls to go into enemy territory. It is one thing making a good campaign presentation and completely another making it happen in the market.

Bavaria: teaches us how to ambush intrusively. Make your presence felt during the event. Let them know that you don’t just exist. You are here to leave an orange mark of minis. That no publicity is bad publicity when stakes are high. Again,newspapers across the world flashed similar images of 36 blonde-Bavaria-orange minis-clad-women. Atleast, it put Bavaria on the beer map.
It also tells us that as small player ambush marketing might be an inexpensive and attractive tactic but it needs to be followed up with a good follow up act to leverage all the attention. You don’t want people to just be googling the blondes as “World Cup Orange blondes” because now they need to know that they’re the “Bavaria Blondes”.

Pepsi:Be cheeky, be charming, and be clever with words, play. Create an ad campaign that leaves a mark even after more than a decade. Yes, even the ADHDed young remember if something is executed brilliantly. Besides we’ve all got an external memory in the form of YouTube now.

Dove: Ambush marketing involves breaking rules even those within your organization. If you want to ambush when it hurts the most, time is of essence. HUL came up with a campaign which was executed within a day. Wonder where they would have gone if they would have waited for test results to come in, or maybe they expedited those too. Either ways, all you need is an opportunity to score points.
So, ambush Marketing might be the sneakiest, most devious, and controversial form of marketing but, despite all this, it can be very effective. Successful ambush strategies in that regard can also be the natural result of healthy competition. It’s all part of the natural evolution. So we say go ahead,stay fresh, keep it healthy while you play the unethical hare, let the tortoise wonder how you did what you did and finally, deliver by plundering meekness and attacking weakness. Because at the end of the day it’s about survival of the sneakiest.


What’s rastacise you ask? Just a little brand exercise to experiment if we can ambush any successful current campaign. We also want our readers to post their own ideas in the comment box below.
So here’s how it goes, surprisingly,the telecom industry in spite of being extremely competitive hasn’t seen a legendary ambush. So we take the highly successful Airtel ‘har ek friend zaroori hota hai campaign’. Overplayed and a bit abused, but hey, very effective and catchy. So makes it a very tough one to go after. But let’s say, I were Airtel’s rival brand, I would definitely want to ambush it. What better way to start a water cooler conversation about your own brand than to upstage one of the most successful campaigns of this year in a very obvious way.

Lets look at one of the ads in the series of Airtel’s ‘har ek friend’ campaign. This one is about ‘kanjoos friend’

Ambusher: Idea
Here’s what we suggest Idea do. Make an ad similar to Airtel’s with a few changes via creative liberties of course.

Premise:The scene is a copycat to Airtel’s where there is a car in garage with a broken windshield and the car alarm going off

Friend 1: Police ko phone laga
Friend 2: Dials the number…
Friend 1: Laga?
Friend 2: Missed call diya hai…phone karenge wapas
Enter Abhishek bachchan, dialing police’s number and looking at both the friends: Night ya day, idea ke calling rates rakhe kanjoosi away. Get idea
Idea music plays.

That’s how we’d ambush Airtel. Got better ideas? Post them in the comments.



4 thoughts on “Beating around the ambush

  1. Premise:The scene is a copycat to Airtel’s where there is a car in garage with a broken windshield and the car alarm going off

    Friend 1: Police ko phone laga
    Friend 2: Dials the number…
    Friend 1: Laga?
    Friend 2: Missed call diya hai…phone karenge wapas
    Cut to scene of the police station where even the inspector gives a missed call…cut to the kanjoos friend receiving a missed call…
    Enter Abhishek Bachchan shayad saamne wala bhi hawa mein baatien ( Airtel) karna pasand karta hain…dost toh kanjoos hai…network nahi…get free calling for emergency numbers with Idea. Get Idea

    Idea music plays

    Posted by Nimesh K Advani | October 10, 2011, 8:22 am


  1. Pingback: The Contender’s Corner: Beating Around the Ambush – 10 Great Examples of Guerrilla Marketing - November 18, 2011

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