Ambush Marketing Strikes Again at Rugby World Cup

November 23, 2015


By Emily Raven – Thompson Rivers University 2L JD Student

One of the largest sporting events in the world had its final match a few weeks ago. With over two million people in attendance and many more at home, it is safe to say that the 2015 Rugby World Cup provides very lucrative marketing opportunities to its official sponsors. This year corporate giants such as Heineken, Coca Cola and MasterCard were among the event’s official sponsors. But what about other companies hoping to get a piece of the action without the price tag?

Ambush marketing is a term used when a rival company tries to associate itself and its products either directly or indirectly with an event that it does not officially sponsor. This marketing strategy is very commonly used at large sports events. As you can imagine, this style of marketing is quite controversial and can be very frustrating for organizers and paying official sponsors of these events. Some events such as the 2012 London Olympics and the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Scotland passed bespoke legislation to protect its sponsors from ambush marketing. However, the Rugby World Cup did not, relying on existing laws and regulations to prevent ambushes.

One of the methods used by the organizers of the Rugby World Cup to protect against ambush marketers involves intellectual property rights. The event organizers held a number of copyrights in relation to the Rugby World Cup including: Rugby World Cup, RWC 2015, Rugby World Cup 2015, England 2015 and many others. Non-official corporations attempting to use these registered trademarks could face an infringement suit. Logos, photographs and event footage also fall under copyright protection, which could be relied on in a lawsuit.

Apart from trademark or copyright infringement, event organizers could also attempt to bring a claim under the tort of passing off. A successful claim would have to prove that: a) the Rugby World Cup has an established reputation, b) the non-official company made a misrepresentation that it is related to the Rugby World Cup, which caused confusion amongst the public, and c) the event organisers suffered damages.

Despite these measures, the Rugby World Cup still saw a few attempts at ambush marketing. O2 gave away 50,000 branded t-shirts to fans to wear while cheering on England in their “wear the rose” campaign. UK power company SSE also attempted to hand out branded megaphones outside of the stadium, but all megaphones were confiscated by security. Samsung, another non-sponsor, also grabbed attention with its “School of Rugby” campaign which featured British celebrities and former England rugby team players in humorous videos about rugby. Beats by Dr Dre also got in on the action by running an ad titled “the game starts here” starring the New Zealand All Blacks captain Richie McCaw.

One company that had a unique position to ambush market the event was Guinness. The brand already has a history of sponsoring rugby events and is often associated with rugby in the minds of consumers. There is really nothing that the Rugby World Cup organizers or official sponsors can do to prevent Guinness from maintaining this connection from previous sponsorship. Guinness did this with a direct marketing strategy aimed at pubs featuring ads of real life stories of rugby legends.

Guiness ambush tweetsA marketing report released at the end of the tournament examined the number of times a brand was mentioned in a tweet with the hashtag #RWC2015. The report found that Guinness was tagged more times than Heineken throughout the tournament. This shows that sponsorship does not end when the contract terminates. Having a previous sponsorship relationship with an event connects a brand to the sport giving it a strong opportunity to ambush market in the future.

Above are a few of the tweets about Guinness and the Rugby World Cup. Overall, the ambush marketing at the World Cup was rather modest in comparison to previous sporting events of its size. Although being criticized for its lack of legislative bite, in the end managers of the RWC succeeded in protecting their sponsor’s exclusive rights.

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