Two days before the Indian team’s first match of the cricket World Cup last month, German footballer Thomas Muller tweeted:
The post was retweeted over 15,000 times and garnered nearly 78,000 likes. It looked like a genuine message of support to the Virat Kohli-led team—clean, with no obvious brand plugs.
Until, Volkswagen India joined in:
It turned out that #GermanyCheersForIndia is a marketing campaign concocted by the automobile company’s German parent. Volkswagen has been posting photos and videos of German nationals in blue jerseys cheering for India. The company also announced the launch of “Cup Edition” models of its Polo, Ameo, and Vento cars in India around the same time the World Cup started.
A clever, effective marketing campaign? You bet.
On the day of the campaign launch, #GermanyCheersforIndia trended on Twitter for four hours, had a reach of more than 300,000, amassed over 213 million impressions and an “85% positive sentiment,” Volkswagen India said.
Now, chew on this: Volkswagen is not an official sponsor of the ICC Cricket World Cup. The International Cricket Council’s official automobile partner is the Japanese manufacturer Nissan!
While 10 teams fight it out on the field for the ultimate prize in cricket, there is a very interesting battle taking place off the field as well. Volkswagen India is one of many brands that has deployed a controversial advertising trick—ambush marketing.
The strategy is not unfamiliar. One of the most popular ambush marketing campaigns in cricket was Pepsi’s “Nothing official about it” tagline during the 1996 World Cup when rival Coca-Cola was the official sponsor.
While Volkswagen’s #GermanyCheersForIndia is not as cheeky as Pepsi’s tagline, there’s no refuting the fact that the automaker has tried to indirectly associate itself with the World Cup.
Volkswagen India did not respond to Quartz’s question regarding ambush marketing, but this is what head of marketing, Bishwajeet Samal, said: “We wanted to break the communication clutter generated by a multitude of brands during this mega cricketing event. The objective was to drive awareness and test drives for cars, and to establish new editions as a symbol of fandom and sportsmanship.”
Volkswagen is not alone. A number of competing brands of ICC’s official partners have launched their own marketing campaigns, in the form of cricket-themed products, contests, and social media posts.
Chinese electronics major Xiaomi, a rival of the ICC’s official partner Oppo, has released a “World Cup edition” power bank. Restaurant aggregator Zomato, a competitor of Uber (which runs Uber Eats), has launched the Zomato Cricket Cup, where users can win up to 100% cash back if they answer three match-related predictions correctly.
United Breweries, the maker of Kingfisher beer, is sponsoring the home parties of some of its consumers on match days under the hashtag #KFHomeStadium to steal some of the cynosures from Bira 91, an official sponsor.
Such campaigns would have peeved organisations such as The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), which governs international football, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which are known to be stringent with ambush marketing.
However, the ICC has not stepped in and pulled up any of these brands. There are two reasons for this.
The ICC’s brand and content protection guidelines (pdf) allow companies that are not official partners to use general cricket terms and images in their promotions. Brands cannot use ICC trademarks such as logos, images from matches, or phrases such as “Cricket World Cup.” However, they can use the generic sports phrase “World Cup.”
In comparison, FIFA guidelines bar competitors of official partners from using the phrase “World Cup.” The IOC, too, prohibits the use of “Olympics” and “Paralympics.”
“That’s a very extreme approach and isn’t very ideal given a lot of sporting events are conducted in the developing world,” said an industry expert who requested anonymity. “If FIFA or IOC conducted an event in India, they would prosecute half the brands in the country. The ICC is more reasonable that way.”
However, even if the ICC wanted to pull up Indian brands, it would not have a strong legal case. “If the campaign does not violate the Indian copyright and trademark law, it is not an infringement,” said the expert quoted above. “What Volkswagen has done is quite blatant but then it isn’t using the ICC’s intellectual property. They are just saying, ‘Germany cheers for India.'”
A lot of brands such as food delivery firm Zomato, its rival Swiggy, FMCG major Dabur, and HDFC Ergo General Insurance have also flooded social media with memes and pun-filled creatives around the World Cup without directly mentioning the event.
Such posts don’t classify as ambush marketing, but fall under “topical advertising” or “moment marketing”, explained Rajesh Kumar, vice president of SportzConsult, a sports management and marketing firm. This is when brands create an advertisement around a topical news story or a moment in a sporting event.
“Our World Cup moment-marketing campaign identifies special moments from Team India’s matches and connects them to how HDFC Ergo could protect customers from various perils in their life,” said Mehmood Mansoori, president, shared services and online business, HDFC Ergo.
It’s what Amul has been doing for years, said Kumar. The Indian dairy brand has gained popularity over the years for its pun-filled topical ads. “No one really sees their ads as ambush marketing even if Amul’s competitor is associated with the event,” he added.
The advantage of social media marketing is that it can be done at a fraction of the cost of sponsoring an event. “You’re only spending on the creative development of the post,” said Kumar. “In the worst case, it costs Rs50,000 plus what you are paying (ad) agencies to put up the post. Official sponsorship can go up to tens of crores.”
Then why do some brands still become official sponsors?
Kumar believes it is worth the money to become an official sponsor considering the exposure and brand recall, which social media cannot provide.
He cites Chinese smartphone maker Vivo, which has transformed its image in India in the last few years by associating itself with two of the most popular sporting leagues in the country.
In 2017, three years after it launched in India, Vivo spent a combined Rs2,499 crore ($364 million) to become the title sponsor of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and Pro Kabaddi League for the next five years. Vivo’s market share in India doubled to 12% in the first quarter of 2019 from a year ago, according to a report in The Economic Times. Vivo was also the second most recalled brand during IPL 2019.
“For brands that are trying to shape up their image, sponsorship is a great tool,” said Kumar. “You can’t build this kind of equity with ambush marketing, which is largely to kill a competition’s buzz rather than benefitting yourself. You could benefit but it’s more of a disruptive campaign.”
Brands may have crossed the ethical line with their ambush marketing campaigns, but no one has quite matched the disruptiveness of Pepsi’s “Nothing official about it” campaign.
However, that could change soon. One of the competitors of a major ICC partner has reportedly signed up an 87-year-old Indian fan, whose celebrations during India versus Bangladesh match on July 2 went viral. Charulata Patel has already begun shooting for ads, which will be released on television and digital media soon, according to The Economic Times.
The brand? Pepsi.