Last Updated: November 12, 2020

You’re at home, watching your favorite sports team, when you begin to notice something: Every time the camera zooms in on the coach for his reaction to a play, there’s always the same group of people wearing the same t-shirts sitting directly behind the bench. Then it hits you—they’re promoting a brand — one that hasn’t officially sponsored the game.

Ambush marketing is a newly popular marketing technique that raises awareness of a brand in covert ways. In fact, the term “ambush marketing” landed sixth in the Global Language Monitor’s “Top Words of 2010,” solidifying its reputation as an emerging marketing method. Amush marketing methods come in myriad forms, but have one common element: It aligns a brand with an event or property without having paid for the right to be a sponsor.

What is ambush marketing?

One of the most distinguishing features of ambush marketing is how unexepected it tends to be. For example, money is needed to host and broadcast sporting events, and companies enter into official sponsorships to help provide funding. While smaller companies cannot afford to contribute this level of funding, they still use creative tactics to get the crowd’s attention. The more attention they garner, the better.

Bigger companies also engage in ambush marketing tactics to undermine official event sponsors. For example, consider Kodak’s campaign during the 1984 Olympic Games. Though Fuji was the official sponsor of the games, Kodak ran an aggressive television ad campaign that created the perception that they were the official sponsors. As a result of this, a number of laws were passed to prevent this kind of marketing during broadcasts of popular sports events. (See also Buzz Marketing)

These days ambushes tend to be rather creative and daring, teetering on the brink of legality—although there are plenty of ways to stay within the law. If you’ve attended an extreme sporting event in the last decade, there’s a good chance you saw the Red Bull car, or perhaps several Red Bull employees standing beside coolers, handing out free samples to passers-by.

Direct vs Indirect Ambush Marketing

Direct ambush marketing is an approach where a brand works aggressively to associate itself with an event or property, when that brand has not purchased rights as the official sponsor. Indirect ambush marketing, on the other hand, doesn’t force the association, but seeks to align a brand through suggestion or reference to an event or property.

Types of Direct Ambush Marketing:
  • Predatory Ambushing
  • Coattail Ambushing
  • Property Infringement
  • Self-Ambushing
Types of Indirect Ambush Marketing:
  • Associative Ambushing
  • Distractive Ambushing
  • Values Ambushing
  • Insurgent Ambushing
  • Parallel Property Ambushing

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Who employs ambush marketing?

Essentially, any company that’s not an official sponsor can employ ambush marketing strategies at an event. The reality is, not every company will. The kind of business that uses ambush marketing normally appeals to a particular demographic—specifically, men ages 18 to 34.

The most successful ambush marketing campaigns in recent memory have been executed by brands appealing to the “millennial” demographic—which is both highly social and highly goal-oriented. A brand like Red Bull appeals to this crowd with their highly caffeinated beverages that can allow someone to extend his or her fun throughout the night. Red Bull positions itself to help a millennial think he or she can accomplish their goals by consuming their drink. (See also Consumer Psychology)

Other characteristics of the millennial generation include their use of technology, sense of connectivity, media consumption (including social media), diversity, and relevance. Companies that fail to engage social media, or which appear homogeneous, and/or don’t know what a hashtag is will most likely not make it onto a millennial’s radar. The brand that keeps pace with the ever-changing definition of “hip” will stay relevant in the mind of the millennial consumer.

How is an ambush marketing plan developed and employed?

A top priority in launching an ambush marketing campaign is finding an adept programmer (or team) who can create the kind of web presence that causes campaigns to go viral. This frequently requires a website with a blog, Facebook accounts, Twitter accounts, Instagram, and the development of an intuitive smart-phone app. Essentially, a brand must carve out its own slice of Internet “real estate” in a way that’s highly interactive, entertaining, and distinct.(See also Viral Marketing)

After assembling the web team and brand ambassadors, the next step is to place powerful smart phones into the hands of those who’ll be walking amongst the crowd. Marketers must be able to tweet, post, upload photos, and share videos with those following the brand. Just as people are motivated to stay connected with friends and family, a brand should seek to position itself inside of those relational circles, at least in online interactions.

The final step is for the brand to physically position itself. This requires gathering at events or properties where crowds tend to form, and then creating a presence. This sometimes involves shocking behavior to get the attention of the crowd, but not necessarily. The campaign will need to be unexpected, but it can be framed in a way that’s enjoyable rather than jarring. Most people welcome pleasant surprises—and more importantly, remember them.

What type of careers work with ambush marketing strategies?

Many young companies, especially those considered “lean startups,” engage ambush marketing strategies. There are also marketing firms that contract with other companies in order to stage ambush campaigns. Therefore, there are more than a few options available to those who desire to employ ambush-marketing skills.

What type of salary should I expect?

  • Social Media Marketing Specialist
    Median Pay: $52,090
    Top Earners: $95,200
  • Social Media Marketing Manager
    Median Pay: $91,810
    Top Earners: $166,400
  • Market Research Analyst
    Median Pay: $60,570
    Top Earners: $111,440

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

At the entry level are Social Media Marketing Specialists. These positions involve the more hands-on aspects of a marketing campaign: sifting through and interpreting large amounts of data, writing presentations and press releases, and tracking the results of the campaign for a summative report. These positions also require a high level of creativity and social involvement in building a successful social marketing plan.

Social media marketing specialists need at least a bachelor’s degree with a major in business or marketing. A behavioral science minor would be a favorable asset when seeking entry-level employment, as it shows initiative in understanding what motivates people’s behavior. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth in this field is expected to grow 23 percent by 2020, somewhat above the national average for all jobs.

Another growing career is that of Social Media Manager. People in this facet of marketing engage in multiple platforms of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, blogs, etc.). Social media managers also monitor and research media conversations in order to identify further opportunities to engage a social media audience. For example, if popular news outlets are all reporting on the same event, social media managers will incorporate content or themes from those reports into their ambush-marketing strategies.

Whereas social media specialists focus their energy on developing a campaign, managers keep their attention on the multiple aspects of their client’s branding. Social media managers work to maintain the integrity of a brand during the process of a marketing plan, facilitating communication between the marketing team and the executives of a company.

Most social media managers only require a bachelor’s degree in business or marketing; however, the prospective applicant with a master’s degree in marketing will certain get more attention. Regardless of degree level, the one requirement needed for this position is experience, usually as a social media specialist. Jobs for this position are estimated to grow by 16 percent through the year 2020.

Yet another career track in ambush marketing is Social Media Market Research Analyst. Only a bachelor’s degree in business or marketing is required for entry-level work; however, it would be advantageous to double-major, or at least minor, in math. Also, top analyst positions often require a master’s degree in marketing.

Analysts track and study the millions of online conversations taking place each day and interpret insights that lead a brand toward a favorable public position. Not only does this kind of job require deep critical analysis skills, but the ability to quickly turn information into reports for actionable steps in a marketing campaign. Even though this is more of a left-brain job, people skills in writing and oral communication are a must. This is a vital aspect of ambush marketing, as analysts help companies connect their brands with what potential customers want, as well as help them gauge what consumers are willing to pay for that product or service. As such, these positions also have a much faster projected growth rate—41 percent through the year 2020.

How can a marketing school help you succeed with ambush marketing?

Our Recommended Schools

  1. Grand Canyon University (GCU)

    GCU's Colangelo College of Business offers leading edge degrees that address the demands of contemporary business environments.

  2. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU)

    Explore the bond between business and consumer behavior with a degree in marketing.

You won’t find a bachelor’s degree in ambush marketing, although you might find a course offered at the undergraduate level as part of a business or marketing major. This will most likely be the case at the master’s level as well; however, adding classes or emphases in behavioral science or data analysis can greatly benefit those who wish to pursue a career in ambush marketing.

If it’s your goal to pursue an expertise in ambush marketing, you’ll need a Ph.D. in the subject. (See also Ph.D. programs in Marketing) This will require a focused question, a detailed research plan that will develop into a doctoral thesis, and an oral defense of your thesis before a panel of experts.

However far you decide to go in your marketing education, each successive degree is helpful in developing your career. Many of your courses can be directly applied to ambush marketing: communication, writing, behavioral science, technology, and especially courses related to creativity. Also, some schools offer degrees that focus more on market research, including predictive analytics. Students who capitalize on these curricular opportunities can better position themselves in their marketing careers, equipping themselves with the skills needed to understand and engage a targeted audience.

There are also networking opportunities available. Many schools partner with local businesses, providing opportunities for internships. In the arena of ambush marketing, students can also hold paid positions as brand ambassadors, where they attend events as the front line of an experiential marketing effort. And while you’re learning the ropes as a college student, learn as much as you can about social media; it’s likely to be an essential tool in your career.

To learn more about what a marketing school can do for you, request information from schools with degrees in marketing. Then, create your own experience.

Illegal Briefs

After scoring a goal during the Denmark vs. Portugal match of the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship (aka Euro 2012), striker Nicklas Bendtner pulled down his shorts—revealing a brand not officially sponsoring the tournament. The stunt was in violation of several laws governing sponsorship with Euro 2012, causing Bendtner to be benched for Denmark’s next game and to receive a $126,000 fine.

What brand was Bendtner sponsoring on his underwear? Paddy Power, an Irish bookmaker. The incident became a talking point on many media outlets around the world; and by the time the dust had settled, it was estimated that the Paddy Power brand had reached 100 million people.

A spokesperson for the brand said: “We don’t believe that Nicklas should be penalized for nothing more serious than wearing his lucky underpants which, in fairness, was only a bit of fun.” Nonetheless, Paddy Power paid Bendtner’s fine on his behalf.