Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ambush branding and the quest for gold


Ambush branding and the quest for gold


'Faster. Higher. Stronger." Baron Pierre de Coubertin's Olympic motto was certainly taken to heart by athletes at the Beijing Olympics, as world records tumbled and we thrilled to the feats of supermen like Michael Phelps in the pool, and Usain "Lightning" Bolt on the track.

Even as the athletes were marking new boundaries of human performance, another fierce competition was raging: the Brand Olympics, a cut-throat contest where fair play is for wimps and cheats ever prosper. As the planet's foremost sporting event, the Olympics are where the ruthless tactics of "ambush branding" reach their apogee.

Dozens of multinationals, including Coca-Cola, Lenovo, McDonald's and Samsung, forked out a whopping US$100 million each to be main global sponsors, while others such as Adidas, Volkswagen and Air China paid up to $50 million for the right to link their ads to the Games.

Waiting in the wings, however, were arch-competitors with a variety of ingenious tactics to steal some Olympic glory for themselves. One of the biggest ambush branding stories involves Pepsi, which got 160 million online votes in a contest ranking mugshots sent in by fans, with winning entries printed on cans cheering Team China. Controversially, the cans were emblazoned with red, the colour of Coca-Cola, rather than Pepsi's traditional blue. Simply "showing our respect to the year of China", as Pepsi's marketing chief in China, Harry Hui, asserted, or a brazen attempt to yank a very expensive rug out from under its rivals?

Coke had launched a pre-emptive strike in December, with an outdoor concert featuring a 15-metre-high Coke bottle covered with screens flashing Olympic images, and it sponsored the torch relay in China. Said Andreas Kiger, Coke's marketing director in China, "Ambush marketing is a concern to all of us."

In the runup to the games, the soft-drink giants re-enacted their titanic struggle in miniature outside the Surat Thani home of Thai Olympic boxing hopeful Worapoj Phetkum. PepsiCo's local distributor erected promotional tents at Worapoj's home, where hundreds were expected to gather to watch his bouts. Coca-Cola's agents then offered the boxer's father a deal - on condition the Pepsi tents were removed.

Another quick bit of ambush branding was carried out by Nike, which has an endorsement deal with Athens gold-medal hurdler Liu Xiang. Rivals and official sponsors Adidas must have been rubbing their hands in glee when Nike's star limped out of the 110-metre hurdles, citing an Achilles tendon injury. The next day, Nike struck back with full-page ads in all the major Beijing newspapers. The ad simply featured a sad-looking Liu, overlaid with the words: "Love competition. Love risking your pride. Love winning it back. Love giving it everything you've got. Love the glory. Love the pain. Love sport even when it breaks your heart."

Nike's president, Charlie Denson, explained: "We are about sticking by athletes through thick and thin, through injury and poor performances. That is why sports are such an exciting field - there are no guarantees. There is heartbreak and failure as well as excitement and triumph." For brands, as well as athletes, he might have added.

Nike also unveiled a new sportswear line on 08.08.08, the opening day of the Olympics, featuring a huge street drumming event called "88 Boadrum".

But the gold medal for ambush branding must go to former six-time Olympic medalist Li Ning, who started a sportswear company also called Li Ning, now locked in mortal combat with Adidas and Nike in China. When he lit the Olympic flame, suspended by wires 75 feet in the air, he surely also lit a fire under official sponsors Adidas.

Greg Paull, a partner at the market researcher R3 in Beijing, told BusinessWeek, "it's going to have a huge impact on the Li Ning brand." A spokesman for Adidas countered: "Li Ning was in a torchbearer uniform which is from Adidas."

Does this kind of ambush branding work? You bet. The same BusinessWeek article asked Wang Zhong, a Beijing executive who watched the ceremony on television, who made the uniform. "I would say the uniform was from Li Ning's company," said Wang. "Don't they sponsor the Olympic uniforms?"

The research firm Ipsos also believes ambush branding works. It polled thousands of Chinese people during the Games, and most believed Pepsi, Nokia and Li Ning were officially linked to the Games, even though they weren't. And such was the power of "Olympic fever" that three-quarters said they would give preference to brands associated with the Olympics.

The London Olympics may be four years away, but rest assured that those who miss out on official sponsorship will be working on new and devious ways to mount an ambush. For the next Brand Olympics, perhaps a fresh slogan would be apt: "Faster. Brasher. Sneakier."

Jason Gagliardi is the Senior Creative Director at Creative Inhouse, a local branding consultancy and ad agency. He can be reached at

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