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February 18, 2007

GUERRILLA MARKETING 1: Is it just monkey business?

You're standing at a bar trying to get served, when the rather attractive person next to you starts making polite conversation. Is he or she just being friendly? Are they trying to chat you up? No, they’re promoting a leading brand of whiskey. Your ‘assailant’ will be drinking the whiskey, they’ll be charming and approachable, and may turn the conversation round to what their drinking – the aim being to make you think that if they’re drinking that brand, it must be good, trendy, sophisticated, etc depending on the role being played out. Alternatively, there could be a group at the bar clearly having a good time, all drinking the whiskey and occasionally shouting: ‘Another Jameson’s,’ over to the barperson.

This is guerrilla marketing. It’s creative, sometimes subversive, often controversial, but most definitely experiential at its ‘in your face-to-face’ most exciting. But does it actually work or simply end up annoying people.

“It’s all down to execution,” says Jonathan Gabay of Brand Forensics. “Like any creative aspect of the marcoms mix, if you plan your strategy carefully it can be a powerful tool. The trouble is that too many people think that it is just a ‘quick and dirty’ alternative shortcut to traditional marketing methods. Today’s savvy consumer just wouldn’t buy that.”

Justin Foxton, chief executive of live communications agency CommentUK, agrees, saying: “Like guerrilla warfare, guerilla marketing is an unconventional method by which small groups or teams of promotional personnel use mobile and surprise tactics to create cut-through and ultimately ‘victory’ for the brand/service/message.”

Cheap and nasty
Or rather, this is what guerilla marketing should be. Unfortunately, as Foxton points out, it is increasingly seen as an option for campaigns will little budget, and, as such is getting a bad name due to agencies using guerrilla tactics without going through the proper channels first.

“It can and should be a very powerful weapon in the war against message overload and media saturation,” Foxton continues. “But, unfortunately it has become synonymous with cheap-skate clients and agencies who want the benefits of high-end creative without paying for them.
“This is causing a negative perception. If it continues, this attitude/practice will irreparably damage the reputation of the discipline. It will soon cause site owners and even government to legislate against it to the point where we are no longer permitted to use it at all. The industry knows that the effect of a campaign is not diminished if the site owners are paid their site fee and the authorities are notified. The public is still oblivious. The industry is just playing dumb on this issue to ensure that their margins are not hit by high site cost.”

Undercover issues
This issue aside, there is still the moral dilemma of whether it’s right to involve consumers in marketing when they’re not aware of it.

“One of the biggest recent issues is creating covert guerrilla activity,” says Dale Baker, experiential director at Lime. “If you are trying to engage with your consumer, make sure you are open and honest about that interaction. Nothing travels faster than bad word of mouth. However, with the right planning, insights and execution it can be a cost-effective, targeted tool for message and product distribution.”

Of course, some would argue that key to the success of many guerrilla campaigns – like the whisky example cited earlier – is their covert nature. But you are running a high risk factor with such an approach.

“Guerrilla marketing can be extremely effective,” says Ian Irving, sales and marketing director at experiential agency Sledge, “but it can also be an absolute disaster when done wrong. For example, recently, gadgets intended to promote cult cartoon series Aqua Teen Hunger Force triggered a bomb alert in Boston, after guerrilla marketers placed crudely made devices in strategic locations such as bridges and railway stations.” Oops!

A refreshing change
So what’s the answer? Embrace it or bin it? It would certainly seem a shame to dump such a creative and clearly effective form of experiential marketing. The key is to approach it in the right way and for the right reasons. And live marketing agency TRO’s client services director Michael Wyrley-Birch chimes an optimistic note.

“From the consumers’ point of view, guerrilla marketing is actually a refreshing change,” he insists. “We are all used to being targeted through advertising, direct mail and other ‘deliberate’ and carefully polished initiatives, but guerrilla marketing comes across as spontaneous and random. The reality is that it will have been very carefully orchestrated, but the consumer won’t have any inkling of this because it takes the form of a complete surprise. Consumers will believe themselves lucky to have witnessed an event, without realising that it had actually been positioned with them in mind.”

Next week, Ian Whiteling reveals how best to approach a guerrilla campaign and the pitfalls to avoid. Plus, watch out for Ian’s article covering successful guerrilla campaigns.

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