Reading: Guerrilla Marketing

Guerrilla Marketing: Thinking Outside the Box

Guerrilla marketing is a relatively new marketing strategy that relies on unconventional, often low-cost tactics to create awareness of and goodwill toward a brand, product, service, or even a company. The term “guerrilla marketing” itself comes from Jay Conrad Levinson, who coined the term in his 1984 book Guerrilla Advertising. Though “guerrilla” has military connotations (the word means “little war), guerrilla promotion strategies often combine elements of wit, humor, and spectacle to capture people’s attention and engage them in the marketing act. Guerrilla marketing is memorable. And, like the renegade militias it was presumably named for, unexpected.

Practitioners of guerrilla marketing today have used other words to describe it: disruptive, anti-establishment, newsworthy, and a state of mind. By its nature, guerrilla marketing defies precise description, so it may be worthwhile to view an example before going further.

Classic Guerrilla: Nike Livestrong at the Tour de France

Although this campaign was a full-blown IMC effort, at its core it was really a memorable guerrilla marketing stunt: the spectacle of painting the streets of France during the world-famous Tour de France bicycle race. It ran in 2008 when Lance Armstrong was still one of the most revered athletes of his generation. Designed to generate awareness for Nike, the nonprofit Livestrong Foundation, and the cause of fighting cancer, marketers succeeded in sharing inspiring messages of hope with their target audiences: athletes, sports enthusiasts and people affected by cancer, particularly young people.

You can view the transcript for “Nike Livestrong Chalkbot Web Film” (opens in new window).

Telltale Signs of Guerrilla Marketing

Photograph of a man with a bright red surfboard with an ad for "John from Cincinnati," an HBO show. There are Women wearing safety vests in the background of the photo.Guerrilla marketing campaigns can be very diverse in their approach and tactics. So what do they have in common? Guerrilla marketing often has the following characteristics:

  • It’s imaginative and surprising, but in a very hip or antiestablishment way
  • Doesn’t resemble a traditional marketing initiative, such as a straightforward print or TV advertising campaign
  • Uses combinations of different marketing communications tactics, in creative ways
  • Is experiential, drawing in the target audience to participate
  • Takes risks in what it aspires to accomplish, even if it might ruffle some feathers
  • Is not 100 percent approved by the establishment (i.e. the city, the event planners, the powers that be)

When to Use Guerrilla Marketing

This edgy marketing approach focuses on two goals: 1) get media attention, and 2) make a positive and memorable connection with your target audience. Many noteworthy guerrilla campaigns, like Nike Livestrong, focus on creating an experience that embodies the spirit of the brand. Often these projects invite people who encounter the campaign to become co-conspirators in achieving the campaign’s vision and reach.

Guerrilla marketing experts assert that this technique can work for virtually any brand or organization, so long as the organization doesn’t mind taking some risks, and so long as the project is true to who you are and what you represent. The right concept for the guerrilla marketing effort should capture your organization’s authentic voice and express what is unique about your brand identity. At some point you may be asked to stand up for your actions if you’re called onto the carpet, so you need to believe in what you are doing. Guerrilla marketing is particularly suited to small, imaginative organizations that may not have much money but have a burning desire to do something memorable—to make an entrance or a splash. Severe budget constraints can encourage creative teams to be very inventive and original.[1]

Because it is inherently spectacle, guerrilla marketing tactics work very well for building brands and generating awareness and interest in an organization, product, service, or idea. They aim to put a company on the map–the mind-share map. It’s interesting that guerrilla marketing often calls on the audience to engage or take action, but turning participants into a paying customers may not be the goal. However, successful guerrilla marketing can make audiences undergo a kind of “conversion” experience: if the impact is powerful enough, it can move consumers further along the path towards brand loyalty.

Volkswagen: Take the Slide!

Take a look at the following guerrilla marketing spectacle organized by Volkswagen. Notice how the event capitalizes on a unique combination of emotional appeal and surprise. (Note: there is no narration to the video; just background music.)

You can access the text alternative for Speed Up Your Life, Take the Slide (opens in new window).

Guerrilla Marketing Tactics: The Usual Suspects

As you saw in the example of the lamppost transformed into a McDonald’s coffeepot, all kinds of spaces and urban environments present opportunities for the guerrilla marketer. In fact, guerrilla marketing initiatives can be executed offline or online. Some companies feel that an edgy, unexpected online campaign with creative guerrilla elements is a little safer than executing a project in the bricks-and-mortar world.

It goes against the very notion of guerrilla marketing to establish a set of tactics or practices that are “conventional” or “typical.” However, the following list describes some examples of guerrilla marketing tactics from noteworthy campaigns, which will give you an idea of what’s been used in the past.[2]

Guerrilla Tactics
Guerrilla Tactic Description
Graffiti Graffiti marketing, a subset of guerrilla marketing, turns walls, alleys, and streets into larger-than-life canvases for marketing activity.
Stencil graffiti Use of stencils to create repeated works of graffiti, with the stencils enabling the project team to rapidly recreate the same work in multiple locations. Stencils tend to be smaller-scale and simpler than classic graffiti art.
Undercover, or stealth marketing Use of marketers or paid actors to go “undercover” among peers to engage unsuspecting people in a marketing activity of some sort. For example, attractive actors are paid to strike up conversations, rave about a new mobile device, and then ask people to take a photo using the device, so that they get hands-on experience with the product in question.
Stickers Inventive use of stickers as a temporary medium for creating an image, posing an illusion, or conveying a message
Flash mobs A group of people organized to perform an action at a predetermined place and time; usually they blend in with bystanders initially and then join the “mob” activity at a designated moment.
Publicity stunts Extraordinary feats to attract the attention of the general public, as well as media
Treasure hunts Placing a series of online and offline “treasure hunt” clues in an urban environment and inviting target audiences to participate in the hunt to win prizes and glory
Sham events Staging an activity or event that appears real, but in fact is a fake, for the purposes of drawing attention and making a statement

Despite the irreverent, anti-establishment spirit of guerrilla marketing, marketers should use good judgment about seeking permission from building owners, city managers, event planners, or others in a position of authority, to avoid unpleasant or unnecessary complications. Some coordination, or even a heads-up that something is happening, can go far toward earning goodwill and a cooperative spirit in the face of an unexpected spectacle.

How NOT to Guerrilla Market

When three guerrilla marketing veterans spoke with Entrepreneur about their work, they gave their top advice about what NOT to do with these projects:[3]

  • Adam Salacuse of ALT TERRAIN: “Never aim to upset, scare, or provoke people in a negative way. The goal should be to implement something that people will embrace, enjoy, and share with friends.”
  • Brett Zaccardi of Street Attack: “Don’t be contrived or too bland. Don’t try to be something you’re not.”
  • Drew Neisser of Renegade Marketing: “Try not to annoy your target. [It] is generally not a good idea to do something that will cause someone on the team to go to jail.”

Advantages and Disadvantages of Guerrilla Marketing

Guerrilla marketing has several notable advantages. It can be inexpensive to execute—it’s often much cheaper than traditional advertising when you consider the number of impressions and amount of attention generated. It encourages creativity and inventiveness, since the goal is to create something novel and original. Guerrilla marketing is about buzz: it is designed for viral sharing, and it taps into powerful word-of-mouth marketing as people share their memorable guerrilla-inspired impressions and experiences with friends and acquaintances. A guerrilla marketing phenomenon can take on a life of its own and live in the memories of the people it affected long after the actual event is over. Finally, when executed effectively, guerrilla tactics are designed with media and publicity in mind. Media attention can snowball and generate a larger-than-expected “bounce” as local or even national outlets choose to cover these events.

As suggested above, guerrilla marketing also carries some disadvantages and risks. When an (apparently) spontaneous activity springs up in a public space, property owners, the police, and other authorities may object and try to interfere or stop the event. Unexpected obstacles can arise, which even the best-laid plans may have missed: weather, traffic, current events, timing, etc. Some audiences or bystanders may misinterpret what is happening, or even take offense at provocative actions or messages. When guerrilla projects are cloaked in secrecy or mystery, people may become uncomfortable or fearful, or the aura of mystery may cause them to interpret the message and goals incorrectly. Similarly, if people feel they have been duped by a guerrilla marketing activity, they may come away with negative impressions. If some people disapprove of a given guerrilla marketing activity or campaign, there’s a risk of backlash, anger, and frustration.

Compared to traditional marketing, guerrilla tactics are definitely riskier. Then again, the rewards can be brilliant, when things go as planned.

The Role of IMC in Guerrilla Marketing

As noted above, one telltale sign of guerrilla marketing is the way it blends multiple tactics to create maximum exposure and impact. Most guerrilla marketing campaigns incorporate multiple marketing communication methods and tools to carry out the the full vision. This makes them more than IMC compatible—they are really IMC dependent. For example, organizers of guerrilla stunts and feats frequently film their activities and post them online to generate (hopefully) viral videos and other content. Real-world guerrilla messages and promotional pieces often include information to access company Web sites, where custom-designed landing pages welcome visitors to the online counterpart of the guerrilla experience.

Social media is a staple of guerrilla marketing. Organizing, publicizing, and sharing a campaign’s outcomes and impact may all take place through social channels. Social media also helps generate the buzz that drives guerrilla content to become viral. As guerrilla activities draw media attention, they intersect with PR and media relations.