Business development · 3 April 2017

How to avoid getting caught up in ambush marketing

Ambush marketing
Ambush marketing occurs when a business attempts to gain an unofficial association witha separateevent or campaign
For the latest article in his marketing series, Grid Law founder David Walker returns to explain the legalities of ambush marketing and how small business owners can ensure they remain on the right side of the law.

As business owners, were always on the lookout for publicity to attract new customers. We could spend a fortune on this, so when an opportunity arises to catch their attention for free, we jump on it.


This is what happens when the whole country gets caught up with the hype and enthusiasm surrounding, for example, a big sporting event. We run special promotions to cash in on the excitement, and all of our marketing has a little twist showing our support for the local heroes.

The problem is, if you’re not an official sponsor of the event, doing so could land you in serious financial trouble.

This practice is known as ambush marketing? and it’s often thought of as the battle ground between big brands over big events such as the Olympics or football World Cups.

However, ambush marketing is much wider than that. It covers any attempt to try and associate yourself with an event when you’re not authorised to do so.

Ambush marketing The legal position

So, how far can you go, without getting into trouble?

The legal position relating to ambush marketing is quite clear, and Ill explain this below. However, the level of enforcement of this legal position varies quite considerable and that’s what creates some uncertainty around what is or isnt acceptable.

Some people will jump on the bandwagon of some events and get away with it, while someone else tries it once and gets caught.

To explain why, let’s look at the two ends of the scale, before we tackle the grey area in the middle.

Probably the most restricted and highly policed event we have ever come across in the UK is the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Special legislation was enacted to prevent any unauthorised associations with it. Not only were you prevented from using the traditional Olympic symbols and specific event logos, there were even certain combinations of words you could not use.

If you used them for your business for any reason, you were told to stop immediately and failure to do so would have resulted in legal action against you.

At the other end of the scale are seasonal events and celebrations.

As you would expect, you are pretty much free to do whatever you want around Christmas, Easter, Halloween and Valentine’s Day etc. provided you comply with general principles of advertising and marketing. (For more on this, see my previous article Promoting your business: The line between impact and illegality).

The main difference between the two ends of the scale is the amount and value of the intellectual property associated with them.

Almost every aspect of the Olympics is protected by intellectual property rights which are owned by the International Olympic Committee. These rights are worth billions of pounds to the IOC and so they will do everything they can to protect them.

On the other hand, there is no intellectual property in seasonal events, nobody trying to protect them and so everyone is free to celebrate how they choose.

The middle ground is where an event is protected by intellectual property rights, but these rights are not enforced or not enforced consistently, perhaps due to a lack of resources.

Opportunitiesfor small businesses

So, as a business owner, what can you do to join in the celebrations?

The legal position is, as I said before, quite clear. If someone owns any intellectual property rights in an event, you cannot use them without their permission. Just because they havent enforced their rights in the past, it doesnt mean they won’t enforce them in the future.

This means that you should steer clear of using the name and logo of the event. they’re likely to be protected by trademarks and even if they are not, they will have a strong reputation and will therefore be protected by the laws of passing off.



David Walker is the founder of Grid Law, a firm which first targeted the motorsport industry, advising on sponsorship deals, new contracts and building of personal brands. He has now expanded his remit to include entrepreneurs, aiding with contract law, dispute resolution and protecting and defending intellectual property rights.

Business development