Is official sponsorship still worth the money?

Professor Joerg Koenigstorfer

Professor Sebastian Uhrich

Posted: June 19, 2014

Although some brands do not possess official sponsorship rights to associate their brand with an event or a team, they are still using the context that is provided by particular events to communicate with consumers. This is especially true for the FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil – i.e., an event that provides an outstanding context to emotionalize consumers and target them around these emotions. The following commercial provides an example of such associative advertising campaigns:

In the commercial, German car producer Volkswagen advertises its so-called “cup” models, using Germany’s Thomas Müller and Brazil’s Neymar as celebrity endorsers. This commercial, among the many communication tools that Volkswagen is using at the moment, refer or allude to the FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil. However, Volkswagen is neither sponsor of the FIFA nor sponsor of one of the national teams (e.g., Germany and Brazil). It is controversial whether companies engaging in such practices act ethically sound because they (attempt to) benefit from the event (by triggering associations with football, Brazil, competition, and enjoyment when playing football) without paying the FIFA or the event organizers for it. Such practices are commonly referred to as “ambush marketing.” Chadwick and Burton (2011, p. 714) define ambush marketing as “a form of associative marketing which is designed by an organization to capitalize on the awareness, attention, goodwill, and other benefit, generated by having an association with an event or property, without the organization having an official or direct connection to that event or property”.

There is an ongoing debate among representatives of sport federations, sport event organizers, lawyers and sport policy makers as to how the issue of ambush marketing should be dealt with. The prevention of ambush marketing based on existing laws and policies is difficult. Today’s ambush marketing practices rarely represent an infringement of official sponsorship rights and therefore fall outside the scope of laws such as intellectual property and unfair competition laws. Even specific anti-ambush laws that prohibit not only direct associations to the event (i.e., logos, protected terms and symbols) but also so-called “unauthorized associations” lack the power the prevent ambush marketing because no definite decision rules are at hand to decide whether a particular activity creates an association with the event or not. Except for official logos and protected slogans, non-sponsors (called “ambushers”) can therefore use various elements to refer or allude to a particular event. For example, Volkswagen uses pictures of Brazil’s iconic sugar loaf mountain, engaged Brazil’s famous former player Pele as brand ambassador and uses football terminology such as “cup”, “final” or “team” in its communication messages. The following website provides many more examples:

Given these circumstances, one may wonder whether official sponsorship is still worth the money. Research provides some insights into this question. If consumers are not being told that ambush marketing is ethically questionable, they evaluate ambushers (here: Volkswagen) more positively even though they may feel that sponsors should be protected (Koenigstorfer & Groeppel-Klein 2012). This is because consumers do not tend to distinguish between sponsors and non-sponsors and because they do not care much about which brand possesses official sponsorship rights and which brand does not. Only if ambush marketing is disclosed explicitly and if individuals both have a positive attitude toward the sponsorship and are highly involved in the event at the same time, consumers downgrade brands that engage in ambush marketing. Is this the case in Brazil? Very unlikely, because ambushers are rarely disclosed (except in the case of rights violations) and because consumers rarely perceive the behavior of sponsors positively per se. In addition, research suggests that consumers process many advertising messages unconsciously (d’Ydewalle et al. 1988). It is unlikely that automatic message processing includes rather complex information such as a brand’s status as official sponsor. What is more likely is that consumers simply form associations between the brand and the World Cup without much cognitive elaboration. The official sponsors’ privilege to include protected logos and terms in their messages therefore seems unimportant as associations between a brand and the World Cup can be created by several other elements.

To conclude, we see some indication that official sponsors should at least reassess whether their investments in official sponsorship rights pay off. Ambushers have many opportunities to obtain similar benefits as official sponsor while at the same time avoiding some of the risks associated with an official liaison with the FIFA. Reports on corruption and perceptions of over-commercialization raise concerns about the benefits of associating with the World Cup and the FIFA. Ambushers are much more flexible in terms of withdrawing from these entities in situations of negative publicity. Due to the negative press about corruption in Brazil and corruption in the FIFA, ambushers may even be the brands with the highest overall benefit because they use a broader context of association but do not directly pay institutions that are perceived negatively by parts of the population.

IChadwick, S., & Burton, N. (2011). The evolving sophistication of ambush marketing: A typology of strategies. Thunderbird International Review, 53, 709-719.

IId’Ydewalle, G., Abeele, P.V., Rensbergen, J.V., & Couke, P. (1988). Incidental processing of advertisement while watching soccer games broadcasts. In M. Gruneberg, P. Morris, & R. Sykes (Eds.), Practical aspects of memory: Current research and issues (pp. 478-483). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

IIIKoenigstorfer, J., & Groeppel-Klein, A. (2012). Implicit and explicit attitudes to sponsors and ambushers. European Sport Management Quarterly, 11, 477-499.

About Professor Joerg Koenigstorfer

Professor Joerg Koenigstorfer is head of the Department of Sport & Health Management at Technische Universität München. He earned his Ph.D. from Saarland University and was post doc at the Pennsylvania State University. Currently he serves on the editorial review board of European Sport Management Quarterly. His researches focuses on consumer-decision making as well as sport and health care management.

About Professor Sebastian Uhrich

Professor Sebastian Uhrich holds a Chair in Sport Business Administration at the German Sport University’s well-renowned Institute of Sport Economics and Sport Management. He earned his Ph.D. from University of Rostock and his research focuses on diverse topics in sport marketing and sport consumer behavior.