The return of Ambush Marketing

Published On: 05, Dec 2017 | Source:


Time and again, brands have made mistakes which other brands have taken full advantage of. Take the recent Indigo Airlines incident where the video of ground staff assaulting and manhandling a passenger at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport went viral. Soon afterwards, social media was on fire with memes, fake ads and jokes. Taking advantage of the situation was none other than the national carrier, Air India, which isn’t a front-runner when it comes to advertising. The airline on its Twitter handle released two quick ads — one with the line, ‘We raise our hands only to say Namaste’ and the other going, ‘Unbeatable service’, with ‘beat’ appearing in blue font (a colour associated with IndiGo) with the remaining alphabets in AI’s trademark red.

At a global level too, Samsung recently came out with a commercial mocking the hype around iPhone since the last decade, with the protagonist eventually shifting to Samsung on realising that the iPhone is slow to adopt innovative tech. Thus, bringing the time-tested advertising strategy — ambush marketing — back to the fore.

Used heavily in the 1980s, ambush marketing over the years has evolved and become more sophisticated — from billboards (1960-80) to television (1980-2000) to digital (mostly social platforms, since 2009). So much so that in some cases, marketers — the targeted brand and its ambusher — often take it sportingly. For instance, in 2011 Jet Airways released a billboard ad in Mumbai stating, ‘We’ve changed’. Soon afterwards, Kingfisher upped the game with another billboard (placed right above it), ‘We made them change!’ Go Air too jumped in with its own billboard claiming, ‘We’ve not changed. We’re still the smartest way to fly’, leaving consumers in splits.

“Ambush marketing can often be a surprisingly effective marketing tactic and I deliberately use the word tactic to separate it from strategy,” Alchemist Brand Consulting’s managing partner Samit Sinha says. Barring a few exceptions, ambush marketing is a short-term ploy to take advantage of a competitor’s marketing spends and the consequent market salience — extremely cost-effective. Only a few brands have used it as a long-term strategy.

Avis stands out as a great example, when in 1962 it came up with a tagline that ambushed the acknowledged market leadership of Hertz with the immortal words — ‘When you’re only No. 2, you try harder’. It was in 2012, almost 50 years later that the company rolled out a new ad campaign and tagline, It’s Your Space.

The need of the hour

Usually when there is a big event that promises a lot of eyeballs, brands opt for ambush marketing. For example, a big ticket event like the cricket/football world cup or the Olympics usually signs on a host of official sponsors across different product categories, which inevitably means that the competitor or rival misses out on the chance to associate with the event. That is when such rival brands plot various ways of hijacking people’s attention.

But there could be other reasons for ambush marketing too, points out Navonil Chatterjee, chief strategy officer, Rediffusion Y&R, while weighing in instances such as, when a brand’s budget is limited and it wants a disproportionate amount of mileage from relatively low spends. “Another situation when brands get an opportunity to employ it is what I call the noose moment — when your competitor has itself put its head on the noose and has asked for it,” he adds, citing the Indigo incident.

Mostly there is an element of wit and humour involved in ambush marketing. The end objective is inviting a chuckle from the audience and an appreciation of the brand’s wit. However, there is a very thin line between being witty and defensive/offensive. “No brand should indulge in ambush marketing with the intention of maligning the competition or causing harm intentionally to its brand image,” cautions Nishant Radia, CMO, Vidooly.

Since social media allows for two-way communication between brands and users, brands can proactively engage with their customers and address competition head-on in an event of ambush marketing. Take the case of McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King usually slugging it out on Twitter. One has also seen this strategy play out well with new-age brands and consumer internet companies. As for the recall value, the question that arises is, what works better for a brand — ambush marketing or regular advertising? Ambush marketing that implicitly has the element of surprise works best when done once in a while and unexpectedly.

It’s not always fun and games

The highly competitive categories which ride on salience and being top-of-mind often invite ambush marketing. In the past, consumers have seen cola giants, automobiles and airline brands taking a dig at each other.

Patanjali, the latest challenger brand in the Indian FMCG market, too has opted for this strategy for its products, including toothpaste and soap. The campaign belittled Reckitt Benckiser’s Dettol soap and HUL’s soap brands, leaving these companies with no choice but to approach the High Court. Raja Selvam, managing attorney, Selvam and Selvam, cautions, “It (ambush marketing) always backfires.” In India, brands often take the route of trademark infringement because that is the easiest and fastest way to get an injunction to stop the other brand from ambushing. The other option is filing a case under the MRTP (Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices) Act.

“In all cases, the Courts go into the intention of the party and the message that the ad or marketing campaign conveys to the general public, and what the public might perceive from the advertisement or activity, which is the result of marketing. More importantly, the Court will look at whether there is disparaging of the competitor brand and if they have used the competitor trademark in any manner,” Selvam highlights, while adding, “Complan was asked to pay compensation for its disparaging ad campaign against Horlicks.”

There are other challenges too. Ambush marketing is all about being ‘of the moment’. The brand has to respond fast too as and when things are unfolding or happening. “Is your company agile and mobile enough for it?” questions Chatterjee, because once you have unleashed something, you must be prepared to face the consequent chain of events that unfold.

Also, at times, ambush marketing may actually work in favour of the competitor and not for the brand employing the tactic, points out Radia. He adds, “We have seen this example play out multiple times in the Samsung versus Apple ads. Samsung has gone all out with its retail fronts, ad campaigns and much more but it hasn’t dented the sales or brand image of Apple.”

In the long run, this serious business of ambush marketing is best done with a wink and a smile.

Back to the Basics

  • The term ‘ambush marketing’ was coined by Jerry Welsh in the 1980s
  • Action against ambush marketing is most common in sporting events where one can devalue/dilute official sponsorship rights
  • An advertiser may engage in ambush marketing indirectly or directly


Globally speaking…

Nike at the Olympics

Time and again, the US multinational corporation has used the biggest sporting event in the world, the Olympics, to make headlines without being the official sponsor! Be it in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics when Nike got basketball star Michael Jordan (the face of Nike back then) to cover rival and official sponsor’s (Reebok) logo with the US flag; or in 1996, at the Atlanta Olympics when it got sprinter Michael Johnson, winner of the 400-metre race to wear its famous gold-coloured shoes. Recently, in the 2012 London Olympics, Nike released a six-minute ad, Find Your Greatness, taking a jab at the sports event which allowed only official sponsors to use the words ‘Olympics’ and ‘London 2012’ or the image of the Olympic rings. The film showed athletes from all over the world, finding greatness through swimming, cycling or skating from places called London, taking a cheeky jab at not being allowed to use the name of the host country. It generated huge buzz on social media.

The Audi-BMW case

Automobiles companies aren’t shy about taking potshots at each other once in a while. The rivalry of German car manufacturers BMW and Audi is known to all. But they took it to a new level in 2012, when Audi placed a billboard in Los Angeles saying, ‘Your move, BMW’ as it launched its new A4. As expected, BMW bought a billboard across the street and replied, ‘Checkmate’. To this, Audi replied with ‘Your pawn is no match for our king’. BMW then brought out the zeppelin and placed it above Audi with an F1 car proclaiming ‘Game Over’. Similarly, when BMW celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016, Mercedes-Benz gatecrashed the party by launching not-so-congratulatory cheeky ads in German newspapers reading, “Thanks for 100 years of competition. The previous 30 years were somewhat dull.”

‘Desi’ stories

The official fight

The Cola giants — PepsiCo and Coca-Cola — have an ongoing war wherein they do not leave any opportunity to up their ante against each other. In India, the famous war got into the limelight during the 1996 World Cup where Coca-Cola was the official sponsor, when PepsiCo took a cheeky take on its tagline and came up with the ever-so-famous Nothing Official About It campaign. Apart from various other opportunities and brand ambassador tugs, the Indian Premiere League (IPL) too has helped the two fuel their wars. For instance, during the second season of IPL, PepsiCo’s Youngistaan campaign roped in Virender Sehwag, captain of Delhi Daredevils (DD) and Ishant Sharma, member of Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) while their teams were associated with Coca-Cola (associate sponsor and the official pouring partner for both DD and KKR).

Ring a bell, yet?

When Mukesh Ambani announced that Jio will start its operations all over the country by the end of 2015, the telecom war took an unprecedented turn. With everyone vying for the customer with cheaper or free data, telecos entered the cutthroat competition zone. And if the pricing wasn’t enough, the 10th season of the IPL, with Vodafone as one its sponsors, saw a ‘Jio wave’ being created during Mumbai Indians — Sunrisers Hyderabad match in Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium. The telecos complained that they are bleeding and Jio isn’t making it easier for them through such tactics.