Affinity marketing refers to an “individual’s level of cohesiveness, social bonding, identification and conformity to the norms and standards of a particular reference group.” (50) Affinity marketing comprises certain specific components and tactics such as frequency marketing, loyalty marketing, relationship marketing, and data-based marketing. The reference group, depending on its size and characteristics, can be an attractive market for sponsors. MBNA, a major player in the field of sport sponsorship using affinity marketing, explains their interpretation of affinity marketing as follows:
We identify organizations made up of people with a common interest, obtain their endorsements of our company and its products, and market to their members under the endorsement. We have been doing this for a long time, and we dominate the field with more than 5,000 affinity organizations including professional associations, colleges and universities, sports teams, financial institutions and many other groups throughout the world.
MBNA’s unique position in the consumer lending business rests on partnering with affinity organizations that people care about—organizations inspiring pride and passion among their members. We provide products and services that express loyalty and help organizations strengthen relationships with their members. (51)
In sport marketing, bank credit cards with the team logo, university identification, or special-purpose cards such as the Jack Nicklaus Platinum card are the most recognizable and common forms of affinity marketing. These types of programs usually offer an attractive introductory interest rate and allow the cardholder to earn points for each purchase—thus appealing to their loyalty and identification with the group to capture their spending. Points are redeemable for team merchandise, golfing fees, donations to the athletic department, and so forth.
Perhaps the best example of consumer loyalty and support of a sport product is illustrated in the relationship between NASCAR and its fans. According to a study conducted by Performance Research, NASCAR fans have a higher level of trust toward sponsors’ products than other fan groups do—approximately 60 percent of NASCAR fans surveyed compared to only 30 percent of football fans. More important, over 40 percent of NASCAR fans purposely switched brands when a manufacturer became a NASCAR sponsor. (52)
The key to the successful use of sponsorship in sport is activation. Activation describes how the sponsorship is used—how the rights to the sport property that have been purchased are leveraged and used by the purchaser. According to Raymond Bednar, activation brings a sponsorship to life, or in some cases fails to bring it to life (poor activation or complete lack of activation is one reason sponsorships agreements fail and are not renewed). (53)
Sandler and Shani defined ambush marketing as “a planned effort (campaign) by an organization to associate themselves indirectly with an event in order to gain at least some of the recognition and benefits that are associated with being an official sponsor.” (54) This definition related directly to the issue of sponsors paying for an association with the product or event and “ambushers” not paying. Several years later, Meenaghan added to the definition, to include within ambush activities “a whole variety of wholly legitimate and morally correct methods of intruding upon public consciousness surrounding an event.” (55) Including this broader scope of activities underscores the harm to the sponsor; namely, confusion in the mind of the consumer that denies the sponsor clear recognition of its role and support, resulting in less benefit than originally planned when the sponsorship agreement was enacted.
Most ambush marketing aims at major events (such as the Olympics, World Cup, Super Bowl or NCAA Final Four) and other events with high sponsorship price tags or limited partnership and sponsorship opportunities. One of the more noteworthy examples of ambush marketing occurred at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. Reebok was the official Olympic sponsor, and Nike was the ambusher. Throughout the games, Nike conducted a highly visible advertising campaign featuring Olympic athletes who happened to be under Nike endorsement or personal-services contracts—without paying a penny in (Olympic) sponsorship fees. A common ambush tactic is to pass out spirit signs (see the photo for an example). Nike also held press conferences for Olympic athletes under contract with Nike and additionally displayed large murals of U.S. basketball team members (a.k.a. the Dream Team) on the sides of Barcelona buildings. As Nike explained its position, “We feel like in any major sporting event we have the right to come in and give our message as long as we don’t interfere with the official proceedings.” (56) It is also interesting to note that the biggest controversy regarding this ambush occurred when Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and other athletes under contract with Nike initially refused to take part in the medal ceremony because participation required them to wear a warm-up suit with the Reebok vector. The amount of free publicity surrounding this event was of great benefit and value to Nike.
Learning their lessons from 1992, the IOC aggressively responded to Nike ambush marketing attempts prior to and associated with the 1996 games in Atlanta. Nike had created an ambush campaign aimed once again at upstaging Reebok, the official Olympic sponsor. An ad campaign in Sports Illustrated rammed their message home: “If you can’t stand the heat—get out of Atlanta” and “If you’re not here to win you’re a tourist.” The ads proved controversial and attention-generating, as Nike intended them to be. However, as an unintended consequence, they also upset the athletes, causing Olympic swimmer Amy White to say, “The ads are basically ridiculing us [the athletes].” The IOC responded by promising to hurt Nike where it mattered most—by threatening a ban of Nike branding from all sports equipment at the Games and immediately withdrawing all accreditation for any Nike service personnel, making it impossible for them to move through the venue to attend to their athletes. Nike responded by ceasing to circulate advertising signs for spectators to take into the venues, and by reining in its advertising and public relations campaigns and stunts. The result was a more controllable and enjoyable experience for the IOC and their corporate partners. (57)