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When ambush marketing goes wrong

A PR stunt by the CEO of Energy Watch during the final The Block has proven that not all publicity is good publicity. It was a classic case of failed ambush marketing, rendering an attempt at publicity pointless. Here’s why.

Social media was in a spin on Sunday night when Energy Watch CEO Danny Wallis successfully bid on a new property during the final of the reality TV show The Block.

In an attempt to bring publicity to his brand, Wallis turned up at the auction wearing a teeshirt emblazoned with his Energy Watch logo. He also brought along a couple of women, also wearing the tees, before making erratic bids for the property.  He eventually won the auction with a final bid of $1,400,001.01 (that’s right, one cent!).

The problem is Energy Watch went into liquidation in May with debts of $8.6 million – $886,000 of which were employee entitlements. Understandably, it didn’t take long for the public to unleash their anger with many turning to Twitter to vent.

Comments included:

“Shouldn’t have to look hard to find this week’s Tool of the Week? ENERGY WATCH #theblock,” Dave Hughes

“The one thing I have learnt from watching this final episode of #theblock is that I will never ever call Energy Watch,” Rhett Bartlett

This stunt was a classic case of ambush marketing (a marketing strategy where a brand associates itself with a particular event without paying any sponsorship fees). But, given the reaction from social media, was it a case of clever marketing gone bad? Is any publicity, good or bad, a great way to generate brand awareness? Or can it be a brand’s undoing?

While I am all for clever marketing tactics, I am a firm believer that they should align with your brand and how you want it to be perceived. If you think there is a chance your marketing campaign will lead to a negative impression of your brand, then don’t do it. I do not believe in undertaking any marketing activity if there is a risk it may damage your company’s reputation.

So, where did it all go wrong for Energy Watch?

Energy Watch failed to meet the basic requirements of ambush marketing, thus rendering their attempt at publicity pointless. Here’s why:

1. They didn’t understand how their target audience felt about them

Before considering ambush marketing Energy Watch should have gained a good understanding of what their target audience currently thinks of the brand and other brands that have been forced into liquidation.

They could have done this through simple market research – interviews, surveys and previous media mentions. This will determine whether there are any unresolved issues with the brand so they can be addressed first.

If Energy Watch had done this before their stunt on The Block, they would have discovered their target audience was still raw after their liquidation. People didn’t want to see the CEO spending a lot of money.

2. Their message was unclear

In any marketing activity, you will need to determine a clear message. During Sunday night’s stunt I could not work out what Energy Watch’s message was supposed to be. Perhaps they just wanted everyone to know they were back. But, in this case “hey we’re back!” was too easily confused with “hey we’re blatantly spending lots of money even though we owe people millions!”

And that is not a message you want to send.

3. It bordered on banned behaviour

There are many rules around associating with an event that you are not paying sponsorship fees on. Many companies paid The Block top dollar to ensure their brands were at the forefront of advertising, so there will be several companies rather annoyed today.

While what Energy Watch did was not illegal, there are other places where it would be – like the Olympic Games and other events. Putting yourself in an illegal situation can have huge repercussions for your brand – and you, personally.

If Energy Watch’s goal was simply to get people talking, then they have succeeded. The last couple of days have seen people talk about them across talkback radio, TV and press. I have even dedicated a whole blog to them. But can bringing this type of attention to its brand really undo what’s going on at Energy Watch? I am not convinced.

What do you think?

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Michelle Gamble

Michelle Gamble

Michelle is the Chief Angel of Marketing Angels, an entrepreneur who has built Marketing Angels from the ground up over the past 10 years. Marketing Angels has grown into one of Australia’s leading marketing consultancies providing marketing education, advice and outsourced marketing management to business. Michelle claims she's a bit of marketing geek, having started her marketing career in telecommunications and online working for both Telstra and Optus before starting Marketing Angels. Michelle is also a busy mother to 3 children, and lives in Manly NSW.

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