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What is Ambush Marketing? Ambush Marketing Examples in Sports

May 27, 2021
Growth Hacking


If you’ve put in a large effort on a project at work only to have the focus shifted to someone else’s big idea, you’re not alone. Brands are constantly trying to steal each other’s thunder. They’re competing with each other for our attention on some of the biggest stages in the world. 

This concept is called ambush marketing, and it creates some of the most clever, memorable, and petty marketing campaigns in the world. In this article we will define ambush marketing, discuss ambush marketing examples in sports, and elaborate on how Nike has used ambush marketing in the past.  

Ambush Marketing Definition

Ambush marketing is the tactic by which companies hijack, or ambush, a rival company’s marketing campaign to draw attention to their own brand instead. This often occurs surrounding official sponsorships for large events like concerts, the Olympics, and other sporting events. It also applies to pre-existing marketing campaigns that are utilizing billboard ads, television commercials, and social media campaigns.

Recommended Reading: Everything You Need to Know About Guerrilla Marketing

Ambush marketing campaigns provide brands with the opportunity to really show their personality. They force brands to come up with creative and clever ideas, which spark the intrigue of consumers. 

Ambush marketing campaigns can include wordplay, subtle jokes, or visual images that trick the eye, which typically makes them more memorable than traditional marketing campaigns. Feuds between brands are more entertaining and memorable in general too. 

Ambush marketing campaigns also provide brands with freedom and flexibility in how they express themselves. While campaigns should still be cohesive with the brand’s voice, ambush marketing allows brands to take a slight risk and show a different, more creative, and expressive side to them.

This means that ambush marketing campaigns give brands an opportunity to connect with their audience through a new aspect of the brand’s personality. With this new side to the brand comes a new audience. Brands have an opportunity to show additional values and attributes that consumers might not previously associate with them.

Related Reading: How to Use Social Data to Launch a Successful Marketing Campaign

Types of Ambush Marketing

There are two main types of ambush marketing: indirect ambush marketing and direct ambush marketing. Let’s take a look at these two main types of ambush marketing strategies. 

Indirect Ambush Marketing

Indirect ambush marketing occurs when a brand indirectly attaches itself to an existing marketing campaign by subtly using images, verbage, and colors that are similar to an existing marketing campaign for other brands. This creates the appearance that the brand is involved in a particular event, when in reality they’re not. 

Indirect ambush marketing campaigns are not aggressive, and they don’t want to steal the spotlight. This tactic is used to simply gain more exposure for the brand without causing a major disruption. Types of indirect ambush marketing include parallel property ambushing, values ambushing, and distractive ambushing. 

Direct Ambush Marketing

Direct ambush marketing is aggressive. It occurs when a brand starts directly attaching themselves to an official event, seemingly marketing themselves as the official sponsor even though they don’t have the legal rights to do so. They’re trying to steal the spotlight and they want their presence to be known. A couple subtypes of direct ambush marketing are coattail ambushing and predatory ambushing. 

Related Reading: Marketing Campaigns to Keep an Eye on in 2021

Ambush Marketing Examples in Sports

Sporting events are an excellent opportunity for brands to engage in ambush marketing because they’re already drawing a wide audience of in-person and at-home viewers. Purchasing large-scale advertisements on popular billboards and television time slots can get very expensive, however there is a large audience on the other side of them, often making them worth the risk.

Nike Ambush Marketing

One of the most famous examples of ambush marketing occurred at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Reebok was the official sponsor of the Olympics and had billboards and tv ads to prove it. This didn’t stop Nike from working to steal the spotlight. 

Nike erected billboards through Atlanta and ambushed the city with their logo and messaging, so much so that people started to think Nike was the sponsor instead of Reebok. A famous advertisement with Olympic athlete Michael Johnson showed him wearing his iconic Nike shoes, which further confused people as to who the official sponsor was. 

Nike doing ambush marketing during olympics

Nike struck again at the 2012 Olympics in London. Nike ran several tv commercials showing their sponsorship for sporting events in other cities throughout the world also called London.

This confused viewers into thinking they were sponsoring the big event in London, the Olympics, instead of these smaller events throughout the world. They timed their campaign with the campaign by Adidas, who was the official sponsor of the actual Olympics in London. 

Nike aimed to create confusion among viewers as to who the official sponsor actually was. Their clever word play on additional cities also called London was clever and memorable.

Nike during olympics doing ambush marketing


Ambush marketing is a tactic where brands impede a rival company’s marketing campaign in order to draw the attention from their rival to their own brand instead. Ambush marketing is most commonly found during large events that draw in overwhelming large crowds, like the Olympics. Ambush marketing can also occur in more indirect ways on billboards, television ads, and social media accounts. 

Ambush marketing campaigns allow brands to showcase their personality by coming up with clever and creative ideas that excite their audience. These types of campaigns often include subtle jokes, visual images that trick the eye, and wordplay. This helps make them more memorable than other types of marketing. The feuds created through ambush marketing campaigns are memorable and entertaining for audiences too. 

The two main types of ambush marketing are indirect ambush marketing and direct ambush marketing. Indirect ambush marketing is a tactic where brands indirectly attach themselves to existing marketing campaigns by creating ambiguity around who is the official sponsor for a particular event without putting themselves in the direct spotlight. 

Indirect ambush marketing is used to gain more exposure for a brand without being aggressive. On the contrary, direct marketing aims to be aggressive in order to directly attach themselves to an official event. Brands try to market themselves as the official sponsor when they aren’t legally allowed to do so. They want the spotlight on them instead of their rival. 

Nike has engaged in ambush marketing several times on one of the world’s biggest stages: the Olympics. Nike ambushed the official sponsor and rival brand Reebok, by launching billboards featuring athletes wearing Nike shoes instead. This created confusion on who was the actual sponsor of the Olympics.

Nike engaged in another ambush marketing campaign for the 2012 Olympics in London. They launched a series of tv commercials showcasing Nike as the sponsor for events in other cities throughout the world also called London. This created further confusion in the eyes of consumers on who was the official sponsor, Nike or their rival Adidas.  

At their core, ambush marketing campaigns are creative, memorable, and witty. They create ambiguity in the eyes of consumers and they leave a lasting impact. What ambush marketing campaigns have grabbed your attention recently? 

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