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Guerrilla Games: The ambush tactics that generate acres of publicity

Few people who watched the Chinese win gold for their Olympics opening ceremony will deny that the Games are "the greatest TV show on earth". Practically every country on the planet is involved one way or another. There are no fewer than 28 sports and 301 events to excel at, and like a society wedding, all the familiar, big name brands get the best seats in the house, or at least the best billboards.

But just like the movie Wedding Crashers, the whole shebang represents a neat opportunity for brands that haven't paid the $78m (£42m) it costs to be a "senior sponsor" to invite themselves to the party.

Ambush marketing isn't new. Way back in 1984, Kodak sponsored TV broadcasts of the Olympic Games despite the fact that Fuji were one of the official sponsors. In 1992, Nike cleverly usurped sponsors Reebok, even getting their Nike-sponsored athletes to cover the "official" Reebok logo. Dirty tricks for which the punishment they received – probably no more than a written reprimand from an official at the IOC – was far outweighed by the gains they made in thwarting a rival.

One of the appeals of ambushing is that it usually costs a fraction of the price of an official sponsor tag. When Puma fielded a Cameroon soccer team with no-sleeved shirts in a World Cup sponsored by adidas, they stole the headlines without paying a nickel more than the fee they owed the federation for the original shirt deal. Perhaps the smart person in the Puma soccer promo business unit who ripped the sleeves off got a slightly bigger bonus that year.

So if ambushing even the biggest events is relatively easy, why would any brand fork out such a large amount of money for official sponsor status, plus the cost of exploiting that sum which could easily quadruple it?

The stock answers are superficially convincing. Firstly, global presence. The sheer weight of logo placements in an event with billions of eye balls glued to it, guarantees marketers a rare, probably unsurpassed, opportunity to talk to its vast and varied constituencies over a concentrated period of time. Status also comes into play. The World Cup and the Olympic sponsors now seem to constitute a high table of global brands. McDonald's, Samsung, Coca-Cola, and Hyundai – every major televised event organiser seems to have the same Rolodex.

Plainly, these brands get what they perceive to be good value. But there's a new argument against this kind of super-expensive presence. In an era of two-way and multi-way brand conversations, isn't name checking a little passive, not to say one- dimensional?

Of course, the stadium boards and the like are usually underpinned by programmes that exploit the presence, but "exploit" is the operative word. In an era when marketers are no longer in sole charge of brand relationships, consumers rate being exploited pretty low on their scale of what brands should do for them. Suddenly, the sheer scale and ubiquity of "official" sponsorship feels cumbersome, and a little whale-like in its obviousness.

Surely we have learned from YouTube and the social networking sites that what we all want nowadays is stuff to chat and gossip about. And no one, anywhere in the world, is going to go down the equivalent of our local and ask "did you see that logo on the side of the pitch during the Champions League Final last night? How cool was that?"

Another persuasive argument for the large-scale sponsorship is that it allows a brand to sidle up to you and say "we're a brand that cares about the things you do". So something like the Carling Cup gets handed round from milk to soft drinks companies to the current holder, all presumably with the same aim.

Remember, Coca-Cola once sponsored the Coca-Cola Cup. Did they get name checks? Undoubtedly. Did anyone really believe they were nuts about Rotherham United versus Doncaster Rovers in the 2nd round on a horrible Wednesday night? No. Was it worth the money to be shown up to be an American brand that can't possibly care about soccer? Only those concerned know.

Again, the "caring about what you care about" strategy seems like an old-fashioned premise. Visa, a Beijing official sponsor, is a credit card that represents a way of buying things. It does not have feelings about anything, let alone Olympic athletes. Therefore, I can't ascribe to it any sense of shared affinity with weightlifting, or any other sport. I can see the relevance of Coca-Cola sponsoring "Best New Ways to Refresh Yourself" parties around the world. Or even "Drink and Belch" fests.

And wouldn't it be fun if Visa could put their name to a "Spend as Much as You Can in Five minutes" lark. You get my point. Relevant, cheeky, affinity somehow seems much more in tune with the reality show times we live in than the slap-a-big-name-on stuff we're witnessing every morning from China.

Of course, some brands use mega-sponsorships to re-position themselves, using the event to signal the change. In the UK, Flora decided that it no longer wanted to be simply a butter substitute, made with various scientifically-produced fats. It wanted instead to be the healthy alternative: ergo, The Flora London Marathon. Hmmm, didn't see through that one, did you? And have you noticed how fast food brands, under pressure about obesity, suddenly develop a real enthusiasm for grass roots sport? Nothing intrinsically wrong with that. And if at a local level, a sponsor comes with money and not too many strings attached, a pragmatic grass roots sports organiser will greedily snatch the T-shirt and run.

Having said that, I think I'd rather margarine and burger makers reassured me about the product and let Nike or adidas have the marathon and the grass roots sports. But it's a free country and I'm sure they have figures to prove these gambits worked. It's hard to argue against repositioning as a justification for sponsorship.

It's crude but it has the merit of being so obvious that it's nearly honest. However, it takes little note of the fact that the web has given us the age of brand interrogation, where no fact relating to a brand and its behaviour is beyond the reach of a blogger. So merely wanting to "appear" healthy is no longer acceptable. You either are or you're not, bloggers will see to that.

So are all these mega-sponsorships worth it in today's interconnected world? At $78 m (let's round it out at $100 m when you include the travel and hospitality) you would be the 10th largest advertiser in China – P&G is the largest sponsor at $977.8m (£523m). So the name checks and ancillary activities probably represent good business against a domestic Chinese audience still sorting out which brands they like and don't like. In growing markets, where land-grabbing is the game, and name and status is vital, simple presence cannot be argued against.

In mature branded markets, USA and Europe, you could ask whether the predictability and passive nature of mega-sponsorship really impress anyone any more. And it is these mature markets that give a shrewd bushwhacker the opportunity to steal a march on a competitor, or just appear plain smart. Wasatch, a beer manufacturer in Utah, dubbed itself the "Unofficial Beer of the 2002 Winter Games" in Salt Lake City and slapped the slogan on their trucks. Anheuser-Busch, makers of Budweiser, had to pay $50m (£27m) to use the five rings and the word "Olympic". So the opportunities for ambushing are still out there.

Our agency, Leagas Delaney, has just "borrowed" the Games for a non-Olympic brand, Timberland. A spot we created is running globally around Olympic programming showing a young guy climbing up to the top of a mountain. A title says: "Everyone dreams of standing on a podium." And as the guy surveys the Rockies from a beautiful mountain peak, another title proclaims: "This is yours."

So Timberland benefit from the topicality and viewers can receive a 60 second break from the various Olympic arenas to dream about being in the great outdoors. No $78m. No hospitality beanos. No costs other than airtime. Oh, and an on-line game, and over 600 co-ordinated retail windows worldwide.

Trumpet-blowing aside, the moral of the story is that digital continues to change the way consumers interact and engage with brands. And that somehow these Olympics, made memorable by the opening ceremony alone, feel slightly out of synch. Yes, $78m is a small percentage of the ad budgets of the sponsoring brands. (J&J, for instance, had revenues of $61bn (£33bn) and profit of $10.5 bn (£6bn) in 2007, so what's $78m to them?) But what of the fidgety, information-grasping web-obsessed kids of tomorrow? Will simple logo proliferation be enough?

In a recent poll by the China Market Research Group, consumers didn't know who were official sponsors and who were not. Sixty per cent of Chinese people thought that Pepsi was the official drink of the Games. It's not, of course; it's their rival Coca-Cola, who is $78m lighter for their trouble.

Tim Delaney is chairman of creative agency Leagas Delaney