Gatecrash the summer sporting events — just don’t get sued

'Ambush marketing can really pay off'

Lionel Messi nutmegging hapless bystanders…

Paul Pogba and Ronaldinho showing off their tekkers. It can only be a Pepsi ad bringing some of the biggest soccer stars to the screen. Back in 2022, the soft drinks giant unveiled a Middle-Eastern themed campaign that ran throughout the winter. That’s during the same winter as the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Coincidence? 

No, but Pepsi is a master of not being an official partner of any FIFA World Cup yet still creating a buzz with their ads. Messi, Marcelino, Toni Kroos and Dele were among the footballers to feature on special edition cans in 2018. The same year as the World Cup in Russia. How convenient…

There are many more examples of Pepsi’s ability to launch a World Cup campaign — that isn’t a World Cup campaign. No official logos. No mention of the event. And this year, you might see plenty of others hitching their wagons to the stars that are the Euros and Olympic Games. A summer of sport is coming into view.

Officially unofficial

Because while ‘officially’ your name’s not on the list, so you’re not invited, ‘unofficially’ your brand can gatecrash the summer sports party. Don’t let a small matter of not being affiliated with the mega sporting event get in the way. The limitation can actually be a creative opportunity if you let it. Just don’t get it wrong, the UEFA and the IOC will be watching.

Ambush marketing (and by extension guerilla marketing) can really pay off with the right name and creative execution. Back in 1996, Reebok were official sponsors of the Atlanta Olympics but that didn’t deter Nike. Viewers were more likely to link the sports brand to the Games thanks to Michael Johnson’s iconic gold Nike running shoes.

Athlete Michael Johnson in 1996 with golden Nike shoes

I’d argue it worked a treat. Can anyone remember Reebok at the Games? Probably not. But we remember those shoes.

Building a campaign around a leading athlete is one shortcut to making an impact. Though naturally, the IOC has closed a few loopholes with Rule 40, which prohibits competing athletes from allowing their name, image or sporting performance to be used in advertising just before and during the Games. But never every athlete.

Uber Eats did this with former Juventus playmaker Andrea Pirlo, while also reminding everyone that Italy wasn’t at the World Cup in 2022.

No official logos means a chance to shake things up with your own imagery. Let your creativity run wild whether it’s through a clever use of iconic sporting quotes or leaning heavily on the cultural impact of a sports event — how it brings people together, sharing in their passion and demonstrating a desire to win. And it doesn’t have to cost millions. Not everyone can sign up Lionel Messi or Usain Bolt.

Sport transcends into culture

Don’t get lost in a sea of sameness that’s sure to fill the airwaves with togetherness and ‘purposeful messaging.’ No one wants to be lectured at half-time. Sport moves into other conversations that brands can tap into authentically, without breaking rules and it allows them to take part.

What does Oreo have to do with the Superbowl after all? A brand’s link to sport might be a tad tenuous but injecting some fun can get hit big with crossing the legal line. 

And if you do fall foul of the legal eagles? Well, it can get expensive. Paddy Power (who else) nearly came a cropper during London 2012. The betting brand’s billboard campaign advertised that it would be sponsoring the largest athletics event in London — that is a small French town called London where Paddy Power hosted an egg and spoon race. The London Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games took a dim view and sued. But Paddy Power won the day citing a few technicalities.

Others have tried and lost. In the case of Dutch brewer Bavaria, its ambush of the 2010 World Cup landed two women imprisoned and released on bail (the charges were dropped eventually).

But it doesn’t have to end in lawsuits or prison. Creating a buzz definitely requires an understanding of the rules but with some creative deftness, your brand can ride on the coattails of this summer of sport. 

Your campaign might even strike gold. Just don’t mention gold medals — it might flout IOC rules. Or maybe do… your call.

Featured image: Michael Johnson in 1996 with Nike shoes

Alistair Schoonmaker, Ultra Brand Studio logo Co-Founder & Managing Director at Ultra

Alistair is a creative business leader that specialises in brand strategy, communications, design, technology, and services. He helps companies obsess the full brand experience and leverage every dimension of brands to inspire, engage and distinguish themselves from the pack.

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