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Ambush Marketing: Official Sponsors Beware!

As summer approaches our attention turns to the many sporting events to be held including the Cricket World Cup, Wimbledon, the Champions League final and the Rugby World Cup.

However it’s not just sports fanatics who can feel the excitement, as companies look forward to their brand being marketed as part of their sponsorship agreements.

Not so positively though, for those who have invested a very large chunk of their budgets in sponsorship arrangements, some companies will try and take advantage of huge audiences by pushing forward their branding as being tied to an event (even though they aren’t an official sponsor).

This practice is known as ‘ambush marketing’ and has operated for many years.

An example of ‘ambush marketing’

One example of this type of marketing took place during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

The sporting brand Nike, despite not being an official sponsor of the Olympics, plastered their logo everywhere by distributing banners, buying a significant amount of advertising space in the city, and even bought a building which overlooked the Olympic Village so that it could become a Nike Centre.

What about the official sponsors?

The ‘ambusher’ is taking advantage of the sporting event without the cost of paying for official sponsorship, and this will raise concerns with both event organisers and official sponsors.

However legal steps are normally taken to reduce, and hopefully prevent, this including the use of trade marks and contractual controls.

Trade marks

In preparation for an event, the organisers will usually register its name and logos as a trade mark to prevent unauthorised use by a non-sponsor. Any unauthorised use would amount to an infringement.

However, trade marks still come with some downfalls. For example, if the event is very well-known, the public won’t need to see the name and logo to know what is being referred to.

So an unofficial sponsor could refer to ‘this week’s big game’ which would be clearly understood by the public but would not breach any trade mark registrations.

Contractual controls

At all levels, there may be controls put in place to prevent ambush marketing.

This could include adding terms and conditions to entry tickets which prevent activities deemed to be ambush marketing from taking place, or include clauses which forbid marketing in supplier contracts.

Players and competitors can also be restricted from advertising their own sponsor which may be a direct competitor of an official sponsor.

All in all, contracts represent the easiest and most effective way to prevent ambush marketing with recourse available in case a breach is committed.


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Phil Parkinson

Partner and Head of Commercial Law
Commercial Law
0113 322 1902
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Phil Parkinson Blacks Solicitors LLP