How Nike and Pepsi Hijacked the World Cup

Ambush Marketing 101: Tips to Protect Your Brand -- or Steal Someone Else's Thunder

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Keith Richman
Keith Richman
The world's greatest sporting spectacle, the World Cup, begins today. Quick: do you know who the "official" sponsors are? You might think from the prevalence of its "Write the Future" campaign on the web and in pop culture, that Nike is an official World Cup sponsor. It's not. Nor is Pepsi, whose "Oh Africa" has been racking up millions of views on the web since May. Rather, the official sponsors are Adidas and Coke -- and both have also produced compelling online videos in association with their campaigns.

As we all know, brands often pay significant sums of money to be the exclusive sponsor for high-profile sporting events including the World Cup, Olympics and Super Bowl. These sponsorships typically include a number of elements and are supported by TV, on premise and promotional support. To their credit, the event organizers themselves go to great lengths in order to protect the value of the sponsors, and the relationship they have with the event. Before the Beijing Olympics, the government assumed control of the outdoor ad space so that the sponsors would be given access to it.

For as long as brands have sponsored these events, other brands have tried to ride along on the brand equity of the events as well. This concept -- known as "ambush marketing" -- involves running similarly themed campaigns around the time of the event without actually mentioning the event itself. A famous example of this was American Express' campaign around the Barcelona Olympics, "You don't need a visa to go to Barcelona" (Visa was the Olympic sponsor). Aware of this practice, sponsoring brands usually think ahead of how to counteract them on site or on TV.

Enter the web...
As Nike and Pepsi have recently demonstrated, the open distribution and virality of the web create a whole new path for ambush marketing. In the "Write the Future" campaign, Nike produced a video starring their top-tier talent. They then used the web as an initial distribution ground. Two weeks and 15 million-plus views later, Nike has created a brand association with soccer, and likely the World Cup itself. Adidas also produced a very compelling video using talent as well -- only it debuted a bit later and was far less seen or distributed. While Adidas may have a significant TV or local presence planned over the next two weeks, it got hijacked online.

So what can a brand do to protect itself, or alternately, what can you do to best position yourself to steal someone else's thunder?

Start early
While you might not be able to own the conversation, you can at least start it. Plan far in advance -- it is better to be a bit early to the party than to miss it completely. Starting the conversation immediately allows you to insert yourself into it. My own company recently demonstrated this with a video called "We Are Lebron." As soon as the Cavaliers were knocked out of the playoffs, we featured an original production that went viral immediately and was featured all throughout the media. Officially, we have nothing to do with Lebron James, but we hijacked the opportunity by being prepared and getting in early. (As an aside, I have hijacked the conversation about World Cup 2010 marketing by starting early with this piece.)

Spend early
Don't just plan your viral campaign to start early -- adjust some of the spending cycle as well. Social media, rapid news cycles and thousands of bloggers are all affecting marketing plans in ways no one would have predicted 10 years ago. With these new tools, people have more outlets to talk about big events way in advance and websites actually have incentives to do so to increase search and other referral traffic. As a result, there is no shortage of relevant content to associate with from a very early stage, and users are in the right mindset well in advance of where they were years ago.

As a frame of reference, type World Cup 2010 into Google -- you get 196,000,000 results. Think about that –- there are close to 200,000,000 million pages that have already been indexed about the topic and the event hasn't even started yet.

Be clear
While I assume that event sponsors have many restrictions on how they can market their association, it is increasingly clear that subtlety does not work online. As creative as the Adidas video is, it does not directly refer to their sponsorship.

Wow factor
The videos produced by Nike and Pepsi both have what I call "the wow factor." You watch the video and want to share it as a result of the story and creativity. Adidas and Coke also produced high quality content that was interesting and compelling –- but needed more "wow" to succeed online.

Target an audience
Targeting a specific audience may seem like impractical advice when talking about events like the Super Bowl or Olympics, which are inherently broad and have mass appeal. In reality though, you need a core group of evangelists to help spread the word for you, or you will never reach the broad audiences. Reach out to these evangelists early, let them know what is coming and get them excited. In the case of our "We Are Lebron" video, for example, we pre-briefed all the key sports blogs and news outlets in advance of the publication of the video -- many before the video production was even completed. This helped us achieve rapid distribution when the video went live.

In today's world, the web and social media are rewriting the rules of marketing. This presents both new opportunities and challenges for brands, but in any event, is a factor that must be considered when hundreds of millions of dollars in sponsorships are on the line.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Keith Richman is CEO of Break Media.
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