Thursday, July 19, 2012

Ambush Marketing – Pepsi Max at the Coke Zero 400?

In the dynamic world of sport sponsorships, no category is more competitive than the soft drink battle between Coke and Pepsi. Not only are Pepsi and Coke competing for naming rights, signage, and other sponsor-able assets, but also the crucial distribution and pouring rights for teams, leagues, and third-party organizations. Even when those rights are secured however, the other company can still attempt to make their mark on an event.

This past weekend, Daytona International Speedway hosted the Coke Zero 400, a major race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule. Coca-Cola not only was the naming rights sponsor of the race, but also owns the pouring rights for Daytona International Speedway. In typical Wild Wild West fashion however, Pepsi Max, Pepsi’s low calorie option, attempted to make an impact on the reported 115,000 attendees. This practice is known as ambush marketing, the purpose of which is to create brand recall and related sales using the event without paying the high fees associated with signing a sponsorship deal.

Specifically, Pepsi Max utilized several assets to imprint their brand on the event. First, they bought an Orlando food truck, the Twisted Cuban, and wrapped it in a Pepsi Max cover. The graphic displayed the slogan, “Free Food. The other guys give you zero,” obviously a dig at Coke Zero. The truck parked at a Sears store on International Speedway Boulevard across from the track, and gave out free tacos before the race. Additionally, Pepsi Max sponsors Jeff Gordon’s car, and had Jeff Gordon visit the truck, eat their tacos, and interact with fans. Finally, Pepsi Max sponsored the flags on the light poles on International Speedway Boulevard, guaranteeing that fans traveling to the event saw their brand name before a Coke Zero logo. All of this was promoted via the Twitter accounts of the Twisted Cuban, Pepsi Max, and Jeff Gordon, making for a very public campaign.

How could Coke Zero, a major sponsor of both Daytona International Speedway and the race, allow this? For one, sponsorships in NASCAR are often hard to pinpoint, as there are an abundance of available assets. Not only does NASCAR as a governing body have their league-wide sponsors, but all of the racetracks have specific sponsors, as well as the individual drivers and teams. As an example, if Jeff Gordon had won the race, it would have been a Pepsi Max car winning the Coke Zero 400, most certainly a disaster for Coke. Also, Coke, while it has many different assets within its sponsorship deal, can only afford so many assets, and when the assets are owned by the city of Daytona, such as the light post flags are, it can be difficult to cover all of them. Finally, brands are becoming increasingly clever on how to reach fans, such as in the social media space, on the way to an event, or even post-event at branded parties. They key for sponsors in establishing their brand as naming rights sponsors is to create memorable experiences at the event that connect with fans. Brands can provide unique hospitality events, one-of-a-kind gate giveaways, and creative in-event promotions that will drive home their participation in the event.

Some question the ethics of this practice by Pepsi Max and others, hence its title of “ambush” which has a negative connotation in and of itself. Others claim that it can be extremely effective given the Return on Investment when performed well. Either way, brands need to be aware of their competitors’ ambush tendencies and work harder to assure that their brand is the one remembered post-event and at the cash register.

About the author: Steve Thiel is a current member of the Class of 2013. He graduated with a degree in Sport Management from Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, OH and hopes to work in sponsorship activation and strategy after graduating from the DeVos Program. Follow him on twitter @SThiel21

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