In the fall of 2010, several iconic New York statues suddenly sported brand-new underwear – including the Wall Street Bull who was wearing an “XXXXXL” pair. This wasn’t a prank but a promotion. Gold Toe created the special skivvies to promote a new line of underwear. The program was both bizarre and unique, precisely why it drew so much attention. Those factors are keys to a successful guerrilla marketing strategy.
Definitions vary, but generally speaking, guerrilla marketing is characterized by the use of shocking or unconventional methods to gain public attention. Guerrilla marketing is also often associated with being low- or no-cost. Rather than printing hundreds of thousands of generic flyers, a guerilla campaign or program can be the placing of one large item in the right place at the right time. Take the example of Sam Conniff Allende, an author who promoted his book by plastering the publisher’s windows with bright pink posters – in the middle of the night, without permission. It was a move that could have easily backfired but instead earned him praise, admiration and visibility.
Carol Tompkins, a financial and marketing consultant, shared her thoughts on why this strategy tends to work so well.
“Guerrilla marketing tactics are usually effective because they focus on stirring the emotions of the target audience, jolting them into wanting to start or continue their interactions with the brand,” she said. “Guerilla marketers do this by surprising, intriguing, or thrilling the buyer, and by making these persons feel valuable, privileged, or special. These tactics also make the promotions, and by extension, the brand, more memorable. Customers are thus more likely to choose such a brand over its competitors.”
It makes sense – the market is so oversaturated that a bold, creative approach can draw attention over other companies. Guerrilla marketing is at the heart of many successful campaigns, as well as some that flopped spectacularly. Many of these missteps had interesting ideas but lacked the planning or proper timing, while others make you wonder what in the world the team behind them was thinking. You can aim high and go big yourself, but don’t forget some basic points of common sense along the way.
Catch Attention Without Excessive Disruption
It must be difficult to make people pay attention to paper towels, but Bounty was able to accomplish just that. In July of 2009, Bounty’s marketing team created eye-catching messes on the sidewalks of New York and Los Angeles. One involved a giant spilled coffee cup, while the other was an oversized melting popsicle. Both installations included rolls of paper towels, to clean up the mess. And both succeeded in generating positive buzz.
The same cannot be said for Snapple, who pulled a similar stunt a few years earlier. They intended to create “the world’s largest popsicle” but the 25-foot-tall dessert melted in the heat and filled several streets with sludge that required the fire department to wash it away. Bounty, by comparison, had far smaller displays and created smaller puddles on the sidewalk.
While you have to put yourself out there for guerrilla marketing to work, it’s crucial to stay grounded and consider the potential disasters that could happen. If a tactic has the potential to become an annoyance or a danger instead of a point of intrigue, some reconsideration is likely warranted.
View From an Outsider’s Eyes
Guerrilla marketing is, of course, meant to be surprising, so that often means a delay in direct answers or explanations. When trying to find meaning, outsider interpretations can veer so far off-track that it creates a sense of fear. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of marketing gone wrong is the 2007 Mooninite panic. To advertise their upcoming movie, Cartoon Network placed LED signs around Boston that would light up to show the main character of the movie. To the average person walking past a small box covered in wires, the assumption was that they were bombs. This turned into a massive incident leading to arrests, expensive fines for the company, and an air of hysteria.
Likewise, the marketing team behind Mission Impossible III made a similar mistake. They put speakers into 4,500 news racks that would blast the movie’s theme when opened. These devices were small wired boxes attached to the inside which were, once again, mistaken for bombs. While it didn’t lead to widespread panic, it did result in bomb squads being called in to destroy some of these suspicious boxes, so the overall impression was negative.
Compare those events to Subway’s subliminal messaging campaign where they projected images of sandwiches onto buildings or drew them in chalk art. It feels just as strange, but the results are utterly benign in comparison. While some people were put off by the ads, there was no hint of danger. A spotlight can’t be mistaken for anything besides a source of light, and a picture of a sandwich is, well, only a sandwich.
Right Place, Right Time, Right Atmosphere
At the 2019 Golden Globes, social media exploded with love for someone totally unknown to the world of entertainment. Kelleth Cuthbert, a model, went to the red carpet and mingled while carrying a tray of Fiji water. What made her notable was her talent for photobombing. She would hover in the background behind celebrities being photographed, often staring directly into the camera. The internet loved it, and many considered her to be the “true” winner of the Golden Globes. That kind of spotlight-stealing could easily have come off as obnoxious – and some of the celebrities were clearly unamused – but it was ultimately considered harmless fun.
The same could not be said of Vodafone, who launched a phone insurance campaign that was just as brazen but ended up being extensively criticized. They focused on Romania, an area where pickpocketing is fairly common. To highlight the dangers of losing your phone, they hired professionals to slip Vodafone ads into bags and pockets. In other words, it was meant to encourage customers to buy their insurance policy by saying that their valuables weren’t safe. An interesting idea in theory, but the backlash was immense. The Fiji water stunt was intrusive but still felt lighthearted. This tactic made people feel violated and repulsed instead of interested in buying the insurance plan.
In the end, while guerrilla marketing has broad applicability and creative potential, there’s a fine line between a campaign that lands or and one that utterly (or literally) bombs. When asked about some of these failures, Kimberly Smith, marketing manager for Clarify Capital, said:
“These campaigns were ineffective because they access the wrong human emotion: fear. While the tactics were novel, the consumer didn’t feel safe,” Smith explained. “When you use guerilla marketing, you need to be hypervigilant about the many different ways an audience might react. The goal is to create something surprising that isn’t threatening. These campaigners misunderstood the existing beliefs and bias of their audience and as a result, their efforts had unintended consequences.”
When done correctly, this marketing technique can be one used by any entrepreneur – or, at least, it should provide some food for thought. No, you probably don’t want to put underwear on statues, but that experimental, boundary-pushing mindset is a skill worth developing. When suffering through low engagement on social media, it may be time to go back to the drawing board. Where can you go to gain more attention? What can you do to stand out from the crowd? What will engage loyal customers and bring new ones in?
Those answers are highly individual – there’s no concrete roadmap to follow but use guerilla marketing techniques and you could potentially capture the attention of the entire world.