Ambush Marketing: An Olympic Tradition Nonprofits Should Adopt

Photo via DarthNick on Flickr

I love ambush marketing almost as much as I love cause marketing. Ambush marketing is when you take a free ride on someone else’s coattails. It’s happening right now during the Winter Olympics. Ira Boudway at Bloomberg BusinessWeek recently explained:

“Start the new year right at Subway,” says light heavyweight boxer Mike Lee in a recent TV ad for the sandwich chain.

The promotion for Subway’s $5 footlong sandwich goes on to show a bearded astronomer spotting a blimp through a telescope, former Olympic speed skater Apolo Ohno standing in front of a Zamboni, an anonymous snowboarder above a mountaintop half-pipe, a pair of figure skaters, a circus ringmaster brandishing a wand, and then Australian snowboarder Torah Bright in a lodge somewhere.

Sitting in front of the TV the other night, at the end of this 30-second mélange, my wife turned to me and asked when the Sochi Olympic Games were starting. In that moment, Subway had succeeded in what advertisers call “ambush” marketing.

Ambush marketing just doesn’t happen at big events like the Olympics. Locally, in my hometown of Boston we see it every year during the Boston Marathon.

A legendary ambush occurred when Boston’s hometown running shoe company, New Balance, outpaced Adidas, the official shoe sponsor of the race. As the marathon approached in 2010, New Balance did everything a running shoe company should do when they sponsor an event.

But New Balance never paid a fee. It plastered bus shelters and train stops, and wrapped trolley cars with its Run Faster Boston advertisements. It introduced a shoe for the race, handed out gear, hosted marathon tours and hand out goodie bags to spectators along the course. New Balance even showed up after the marathon with ice baths and recovery programs for runners. The shoe company didn’t break any rules, but they came pretty close.

“It is taking advantage of an event they’re not associated with,’’ said the head of the Boston Marathon. “I’m not happy about it. But that’s the way it is.”

Ambush marketing isn’t for the faint of heart. But if your nonprofit is the go-getter I hope it is, here are a few suggestions.

The business partners of other nonprofits are your best prospects.

Companies partner with nonprofits for many reasons, and the warm embrace may not be as mutual as you might think. If you can’t break them up you might be able to at least add yourself to the mix. Many companies support more than one nonprofit. You’ll have more luck targeting a business that already supports a cause than one that is new to supporting one.

Piggyback on local events.

Like New Balance, I once ambushed the most famous marathon in the world by selling sponsorships to businesses that wanted access to fans along the course without paying a fee to the race organizers. I did this with the full blessing of marathon officials who invited my nonprofit to set up cheering sections along the course. We decided to invite a few friends––for a fee. Our corporate partners joined us along the course, and marketed their products and services to the hugs crowds watching the race. Our halo created a buffer between them and race organizers. This leads me to my next point.

Use your halo.

People treat charities differently than businesses. You can get stuff for free (or almost free) that others can’t. You get reduced rates on permits, licenses, and fees because you’re a charity. A few years ago, Kentucky Fried Chicken ambushed the Superbowl when it offered a quarter of million dollars to the player that flapped his arms like a chicken in the end zone. A self-serving promotion for KFC, for sure, but not so unacceptable considering the money didn’t go to the player but his favorite cause. Find ways that you can elevate your partner’s marketing efforts with a much-needed halo.

Ambush yourself.

Analyze your own events and programs with the fresh eyes of a competitor that’s prepared to pounce on your efforts. What would they do? Would they convert your sponsors to cause marketing partners so they can raise more money from customers? Would they launch a virtual walk to capture the support of donors who can’t walk at your event?

The key is to turn your fundraiser upside down and to look at it from every angle. You should do it now, before someone does it for you.