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The Super Bowl of ambush marketing: Brands gear up for their own clash of the titans

On Sunday, underneath the glare of the lights and cameras, two heavyweight NFL franchises will compete for the title of ‘World Champion’. Off the pitch, brands and sponsors will be engaged in their own clash of the titans at one of 2016’s key advertising events.

In recent years, unforeseen incidents like the blackout at the 2013 Super Bowl have led to imaginative and inspiring marketing stunts. Oreo’s famous ‘You can still dunk in the dark’ is considered one of Super Bowl’s most successful spur-of-the-moment campaigns.

For the NFL’s sponsor brands, the contest will pit the creative genius of the world’s greatest advertising agencies against one another. But while the fortunate few can afford to spend upwards of $5m on a single 30-second TV slot, non-sponsors and less lucrative brands will attempt to ambush the game to capture the attention of millions around the world. Given the always-on nature of these events, and taking into account growing consumer demand for ‘live’ content, there will be ample opportunities for the savvy brand to snatch. Welcome to the Super Bowl of ambush marketing.

The Ambush Hall of Fame

2015 witnessed some fantastic ambush marketing assaults. In recent years, half of the pints sold at Twickenham Stadium, home of English rugby, sloshed a distinctive Dublin black, but following a £20m marketing deal, Heineken assumed the title of official beer of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. To make matters worse for Guinness, the deal stipulated only Heineken could be sold inside the grounds; it even barred other brewers from selling their products within 500m of the stadium.

Through a clever, responsive, real-time reaction to events on the pitch, Guinness unleashed a social campaign that struck a chord with rugby (and beer) lovers around the world. Japan’s surprise upset victory over South Africa sent shockwaves all the way from Twickenham to Cape Town, and the Guinness marketing team waited eagerly to pounce on the opportunity for free exposure.

This tweet reached 24,697 users, and spread to more than 126,000 people via Twitter. The tagline, powerful and succinct, is as much an appraisal of Japanese Rugby as it is a reflection of Guinness’ own brand values: “Could’ve settled… instead went for history.”

Guinness’ rich history and clever use of ambush marketing techniques afforded the brand enough dexterity to muscle its way ahead of Heineken in terms of total brand mentions on Twitter during the tournament. Other companies need to take note and invest in intelligent social media experts who can track events in real-time to produce content in response to popular moments during the action.

Live Action

Real-time marketing has become an essential facet of sponsor brands’ strategies during major sporting events. As consumers, viewers and passionate fans track and share live moments via social channels (notably Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and, increasingly, Snapchat), conversations and storylines will emerge that brands must recognise and tap into.

This year’s Super Bowl will no doubt smash many existing social records. Brands will look to exploit Facebook and Twitter’s native ability to play video as that channel grows in importance. Combine this with paid spend on other channels like Instagram and perhaps even Snapchat (although this has a minimum spend of $100K), and you have all the ingredients for a classic advertising showdown.

Social teams must stay sharp and be prepared to think outside the box. If you can produce content that is both reactive to events on the pitch and proactive enough to generate its own conversation, then the chances of success are increased.

Let the Battle Commence

When the clock strikes 3:30 pm PST, brands will be raring to leap across the line. A word of warning to the over-zealous: ensure you enter the day with a clear plan and focus only on the essential moments that will make your brand stand out. Far too often, brands that attempt to master the art of ambush marketing can come across as desperate. Rather than patter along with the crowd, pinpoint the key ideas you wish to convey beforehand and translate these into timely, corresponding messages.

Influencers are another clever way to deliver a message or showcase a product without explicitly selling a product. Given the proliferation of social sharing, expect to see several examples of live tweets and Instagram updates featuring under-the-radar influencer marketing during the big game.

Newcastle Brown Ale, renowned for its Super Bowl antics, caused quite a stir as it attempted to leverage the power of Frito-Lay’s Doritos campaign for its own ends. The ‘Ad Almost Made’ poked fun at the very lack of the brand’s official Super Bowl presence. Having the audacity to release this ad paid considerable dividends; last year’s teaser tweet reached 53,473 people, while it spread organically to a grand total of 65,835.

Final Thoughts

For the bold but well-prepared brand, the Super Bowl could prove to be the crucial marketing opportunity that carries it across the line. The last word? Plan in advance, agree on a clear rapid response process and, most importantly, be bold.

Luca Massaro is an entrepreneur and chief executive officer of digital sports engagement agency WePlay

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Luca Massaro

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