The Dark Arts of Hijack Marketing

Frustrated man wearing balaclava with a gun. Headache concept.

Hijack marketing, ambush marketing, newsjacking or guerrilla marketing – call it what you like – this strategy involves a brand associating itself with an event that already has an existing audience, and leverages this, often without having to dig deep for sponsorship fees.

These audacious tactics go a long way in creating a buzz around a brand, but the seemingly spontaneous, creative genius is not necessarily born in the moment of opportunity.

“It’s a battle for customers’ hearts and minds,” according to TheOneCentre’s John Ford. But it’s a marathon of poker-faced strategy that is going to prime most brands for hijacking success.

Take Oreo’s you can still dunk in the dark tweet; it was the talk of the Super Bowl and was retweeted about 15,000 times during the black out. While the actual power outage wasn’t anticipated, the marketing cleverness behind the hijack was by no means a stab in the dark.


Derek Laney, director of product marketing management for Salesforce ExactTarget Marketing Cloud says: “If you talk to the folks at Oreo, they’ll tell you that the year wasn’t defined by that moment. Their success had been created throughout the whole year – building a range of content marketing campaigns – they built up this massive proprietary audience on Facebook and Twitter.” It was those social media fans, already engaged, who helped to spread Oreo’s message like wild fire in that moment of darkness.

According to Laney, this type of hijacking is marketing in real time where a brand injects itself into a conversation that’s already taking place. “The advantage is, you’re able to tap into an audience that already exists, for example Snickers was able to capture a moment during the World Cup, just after Luis Suarez had bitten an opponent – [for the third time] – and they came up with you’re not you when you’re hungrywhich was perfectly aligned to the brand, but more importantly, it was adding something to a conversation already in flight,” says Laney.


TheOneCentre’s Ford sees hijack marketing as “the ultimate David and Goliath opportunity”.

“It’s when you get brands spending big money, and then you’ve got this piss-taker or equalising commentary that comes in and undermines or follies the other brand,” says Ford.

He uses the example of Nike – not that it’s a small “piss-taking” operation. Nike saw this year’s World Cup in Brazil as the perfect international stage on which to battle Adidas, the official sponsor of the FIFA event in its “Risk Everything” hijack attempt.

“The title Risk Everything lends itself to the very definition of hijack marketing. Nike played off a huge amount of public interest in the World Cup and rode off the big name players that they sponsor (Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Neymar). The tonality of the campaign was quite dark and serious – reflecting the pressure of the game – the epitome of competition, to Risk Everything

Richard Morgan, executive creative director at 303Lowe reflects back to a previous hijacking effort by Nike in 2010. He says: “Nike’s Write The Future ad came out a week before the start of the World Cup which was run exclusively online.” Overnight, the ad received millions of views. Morgans says: “Nike highjacked what should have been Adidas’ shining moment, leaving them floundering around on the backfoot. It was a piece of marketing genius.”

The Nike theme wasn’t only relevant to the players’ attitude, but also to the way it was ambushing the biggest game in the world.

“The average consumer doesn’t really delineate between sponsor and non-sponsor. The average consumer would think Nike was officially involved in some way,” says Ford.

When playing the role of hijacker, there are limitations on displaying logos or advertising near the vicinity of the official sponsor. “Typically what hijackers do is play around the fringes of what can and can’t be done. The brand would have its own legal council looking at it,” explains Ford. “However, authorities can’t control the distribution and sharing of related content online.”

With mobile devices and social media, brands can penetrate any zone virtually – just as Oreo did at the Super Bowl.

Laney says: “Brands are better to focus on how they build their own proprietary audience, while it’s tempting to look at the audience of others and steal a moment from them, over time, building your own audience that you don’t have to rent from others is a better approach.” Whether its via social media or alternate channels, “the more that you own that audience – it’s an asset that you can use for a long period of time versus a moment in time that’s gone immediately afterwards”.

Tom Sanders, head of strategy at PLAY Communications thinks differently. He says: “If such a thing is possible, ‘hijacking’ needs to be reclaimed as a word by the marketing community. Rather than suggesting a cheap and talentless jumping on and stealing off someone else’s work, it should be admired as a bold attempt to embed your brand into culture and the cultural community.”

In priming a brand to pull off the perfect hijack, Ford says: “You need hotly contested markets, with hotly contented customers over hotly contested issues.” He likens the strategy to war. “You don’t hijack a plane without planning it, you might get drunk and try to take the cockpit, but 99 time out of a 100, you’ll be restrained. The planning has to be secret, whoever you’re battling can’t know.”

“Hijack marketing seems to scare many brands because it requires spontaneity and risk-taking, which is exactly why it works. It’s a surprise ‘hijacking’ is even a phenomenon – we only notice it because it seems so spontaneous and risky – it’s exactly what brands generally don’t do,” says Sanders.

“It’s more common than we see, but it’s not always done well. Some of the hijacking happens with a belly laugh in the board room – they’re so insular with their messaging they don’t realise the customer’s don’t get it,” explains Ford.

Avoiding events that don’t align with your brand’s message is a good way to avoid hijacking failure. Laney says: “Creating a good brand hierarchy and understanding the content pillars your brand has – that have been prepared for a long time ensures your audiences are used to that message.” With this in place, you can mitigate risk when injecting a hijacking element into your marketing strategy “and ensure the brand is maintaining its direction”.

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