Ambush Marketing at the Olympics: Driven By Social Media and Online Video

During the 2012 Olympics in London, between online streams of Gabby Douglas’ brilliant gymnastics performances, Kayla Harrison winning the US first-ever gold medal in Judo, and Usain Bolt’s blisteringly-fast 100m and 200m wins, web audiences were also wowed by clever marketing campaigns from Nike, Pepsi, Burger King, and Google. Consumers voted the four companies among their top 15 favorite Olympic brands, sharply illustrating the success of traditional event sponsorship.

Or does it?

Besides these four companies not actually being Olympic sponsors, there was one other thing they all had in common:

They all used social media or online video heavily, and often both.

In Nike’s case, more viewers identified them as the primary shoe sponsor than the actual one, Adidas. Their Find Your Greatness campaign cleverly avoided mentioning the games while instilling a sense that it was all about the Olympics. The campaign may even have yielded the best sports ad ever, The Jogger:

Google was used to drive a ton of searches, video views and statistics on YouTube, which caused online viewers to suspect they had something to do with the games. The Google Doodles on their search page, which were mini-games where players could play basketball, hurdles, or whitewater slalom, may also have helped.

Pepsi managed to be associated with the games by not even trying, but instead by running social campaigns focused on their summer music events through their partnership with Twitter. They did get a boost from Olympics fans who sought to defy the Olympic organizing committee’s ban on non-official shoes and shirts. Burger King ran ads in Brazil that were clearly meant to associate with the games, and was called onto the carpet by official sponsor McDonald’s.

Other companies used similar ‘ambush’ campaigns to raise their profile and associate themselves with the games. Headphone maker Dr Dre managed to get Olympic athletes to wear their headphones while appearing on television. UK-based news publisher The Guardian re-created several events in a series of videos called “Brick by Brick”, using Legos, including Usain Bolt’s 100 meter win.

Beyond the success of online video and social media, all this successful hijacking of Olympic advertising proves something else: the emerging dominance of tablet and mobile channels for imbibing mass media. Google reports that 44% of viewers used a mobile device while watching the games as a primary or second screen.

Of course, the official Olympic sponsors themselves used social media and online video to great effect, in addition to traditional television spots and printed media and swag.

This sort of thing has been done before, notably by T-Mobile’s royal wedding video, even though they were not an official sponsor (wait, does a royal wedding have official sponsors? Monarchic protocol escapes me).

So What Are The Lessons?

  • First, though exclusive sponsorships create legal challenges, it’s easy to find ways to circumvent them, given a clever strategy. Nike’s idea to focus on competitions in towns called ‘London’ elsewhere around the world gave them a great ‘out’, and allowed them to appear to be the primary shoe sponsor.
  • Second, social media has clearly leveled the playing field, as so many people search for events and news online using social tools like Twitter. Even non-sponsors can use their Facebook pages to creatively get around the sponsorship bans. Some brands, such as Pepsi, were able to ride the Olympic wave by simply timing their social music campaigns along with the games.
  • Third, online video is a primary driver of ambush marketing, as proven by Nike, that created ads that would go viral even without the games. But with the backdrop of the Olympics, Nike’s videos were given additional gravitas. It is clear how world events (as long as they are positive – we’ve seen brands get into trouble using a world tragedy to drive a social campaign), can be used as the stage for incredibly powerful and successful campaigns.
  • Finally, if you’re an infrastructure or business service provider like Google, you can appear to be part of the event despite having no involvement. One thing about Google is that the company brands everything they do, using the traditional rules that have defined branding for a century. I’m writing this in Google Docs using the Google Chrome browser, and will send it using Gmail, and do you think Google will let me forget it?

There is no question that future events will be memejacked or ambushed by smart brand marketers, and the campaigns will use social media, online video, and a handful of other tactics to associate a company with the event. The possibilities are endless, and we’ll be seeing it with music concerts, sports events, Mars rover landings, royal weddings, and just about anything you can think of. Ready, set, ambush!

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