Is guerrilla marketing dead, or does it still hold value for SMEs?

Is guerrilla marketing dead, or does it still hold value for SMEs?

Polly Kay

Polly Kay
7th May 2019

I studied marketing at university back in the early noughties, and it is fair to say that for me, little of what I learned back then retains a huge amount of relevance in today’s online world. Digital marketing was still a very new concept during my student years, and if mention was made of it at all, it was only in passing.

Many of the then-popular concepts that were lauded at the time to be the next game-changers in the marketing niche have largely fallen by the wayside since then, as the rise and rise of the internet and our ever-more connected world have taken prominence in their place.

This is particularly true of guerrilla marketing, which was hailed as a revolutionary concept back in the early millennial years, so much so in fact that I chose to cover guerrilla marketing’s apparent race for normalisation as the topic of my dissertation.

Just a couple of years later, marketers had begun to fully embrace the digital revolution and all of the opportunities that it provides for identifying and reaching prospects with a high degree of accuracy, and guerrilla marketing was in many ways over before it even really began.

Given this quick snapshot of the state of play, it might appear that guerrilla marketing is as over as last year’s fashion trends – but is this really the case?

The very fact that guerrilla marketing is uncommon today and that its original window of prominence was fairly small means that it could be a concept worth revisiting for SMEs and brands seeking a new marketing approach, particularly if they only have a limited budget to play with.

In this article I will attempt to answer the question “is guerrilla marketing dead?” and consider the value it may hold for SMEs seeking to raise brand awareness or promote goods and services, covering the following topics:

What is guerrilla marketing?

Guerrilla marketing is a type of marketing strategy designed to reach the general public out on the streets in order to promote goods or services to a potentially large and diverse audience. It is almost universally considered to be a budget-conscious marketing strategy, and has been since the phrase “guerrilla marketing” first became a widely understood marketing concept, largely thanks to Jay Conrad Levinson’s 1984 book release, titled simply “Guerrilla Marketing.”

However, guerrilla marketing didn’t really come to prominence until the early millennial years, and its popularity peaked between around 2003-2007, before the marketing industry as a whole moved the focus of its attentions online.

Guerrilla marketing is designed to shock or surprise prospects to catch their attention, and to leave a strong and unambiguous message behind about the brand or offer at the heart of the campaign. When executed effectively, guerrilla marketing serves as the launchpad for a real-world, organic buzz to develop around a brand or product, gaining its own momentum as a form of real-world word of mouth or referral advertising.

Guerrilla marketing can be highly effective for SMEs with a limited budget seeking to promote their brand or advertise goods and services offline, because it is generally highly cost-effective compared to alternative approaches. This offers the advantage of allowing SMEs to level the playing field between them and big-budget brands who have a much higher ad spend to dedicate to winning and retaining customers.

By design, applied guerrilla marketing should be fresh, natural in delivery and not obviously overly controlled or planned, and it often has an element of uncertainty to it as well, alongside sometimes a fairly raw, rough around the edges execution.

Successful guerrilla marketing campaigns incorporate a range of techniques and approaches to reach out to prospects, with the intention of generating an emotional response in those that see the campaign, to leave a lasting impression. This can enable guerrilla marketing campaigns to cut through the white noise of traditional ad media and avoid ad fatigue amongst today’s marketing-savvy modern consumers.

In terms of the types of techniques utilised by guerrilla marketers, there are five widely recognised concepts; street marketing (such as the flash mobs that became almost ubiquitous during the early millennial years), stealth marketing, ambient marketing, ambush marketing, and viral or buzz marketing.

The forms that these different concepts can take are almost limitless; ranging from simple things such as flyers, lamppost posters, stickers and badges to flash mobs, installations, performances, pop-ups, demonstrations, product sampling or taste tests, interactive games, and much more.

What makes for an effective guerrilla marketing campaign?

If you aren’t sure whether or not you’ve witnessed guerrilla marketing in action, the chances are you almost certainly have. Even if you never happened to be in the right place at the right time to see a flash mob lay down their moves, you’ve almost certainly spotted examples of other types of guerrilla marketing approaches out and about in your local shopping centre or high street.

Guerrilla marketing campaigns are not the exclusive preserve of small, cash-strapped SMEs either; a number of big brands have got in on the game too, often with great results. However, there is a fine but clear line between true guerrilla marketing and a slick and well-funded publicity stunt, which kicks the guerrilla marketing ball in the main part firmly back onto the SME side of the pitch.

Sticking with that metaphor, Nike’s “soccer ball embedded in a building” campaign falls firmly within the realms of an impressive publicity stunt:

Nike football 'crashed' into building guerrilla marketing campaign


Whilst a group of audience members holding up lettered cards promoting a concept or brand in the interval of a sports game would fall firmly within guerrilla marketing territory, as would a campaigner with a message invading the pitch or arena at an event, like this PETA protestor at Crufts 2015:

PETA protester holding sign at Crufts

(Credit PETA UK)

Guerrilla marketing is often associated with a lot of activity and a sudden and immediate buzz, and this is certainly true of some campaigns; however, effective guerrilla marketing is just as likely to be a whisper as a shout.

Here’s an example of an eye-catching guerrilla marketing approach used by a local ballet studio, consisting of a lamppost flyer with tear-off strips forming the “tutu” of the sign:

ballet poster in shape of 'tutu'


And for something a little darker, many of us will have seen promos and street events like this one from 2017, publicising the release of Stephen King’s relaunched “IT.”

IT film guerrilla marketing campaign


Both of these campaigns are effective because they draw the eye, make the prospect think, raise questions, and trigger a peripheral awareness of the brand or promo in question, planting the seed of an idea that will continue to grow long after the prospect has walked on by.

Why isn’t guerrilla marketing more widely used today?

Guerrilla marketing isn’t as widely used today as predictions from the mid-noughties indicated it might be, and there are a variety of reasons for this.

Perhaps the first and most important reason is that the effectiveness of guerrilla marketing relies upon its novelty, new angle, or approach, which by design needs to be something unique and unusual in order to draw the desired attention. If everyone was using guerrilla marketing to its full extent, the impact of individual campaigns would be negated; for instance, those millennial flash mobs soon became almost a common sight within London and other major cities, turning them into more of an occasional curiosity than an effective campaign approach in the main part.

Guerrilla marketing is also as a rule fairly time-intensive (the eternal trade-off for a low budget) and requires a high degree of creativity, innovation, and the ability to continually find new angles and approaches. This is outside of the capabilities of many SMEs and even larger brands, who often see more value in paying for ads and campaigns that will generate a tangible and measurable return, rather than taking a shot in the dark with a guerrilla campaign.

On which note, marketing and sales tend to be very data-driven industries, and analytics make up an important part of every marketer’s arsenal. Because it is hard to accurately measure the full effectiveness and success of a guerrilla campaign, many marketers avoid them in favour of approaches that offer a clearer correlation between the campaign’s outlay and ROI.

Additionally, guerrilla marketing tends to take place offline in the real world in whole or in the main, and this was perhaps the final hurdle that ultimately curtailed guerrilla marketing’s rapid rise to prominence within the first decade of the 21st century.

By the mid to late noughties, advertising and marketing online began to take off in a big way for even smaller businesses, and companies began to see the value of both selling online, and reaching real-world prospects online too. In general terms, online ads and promotions are much more scalable and so, less costly in outlay than offline campaigns, as well as being quick and easy to set up, adjust and monitor. As of 2017, around 95% of the UK’s total marketing spend was dedicated to digital advertising, with forecasts for future years indicating that this figure is likely to increase year-on-year too.

As marketing professionals began to turn their attention to online channels and digital marketing really began to take off, guerrilla marketing and other more obscure or hard to define offline marketing approaches began to get left behind.

Today, influencer marketing, viral marketing, social media marketing and automated ad placements are much more widely utilised than guerrilla marketing by businesses and brands of all sizes, with much less time and attention paid to offline campaigns as a general rule, particularly at the SME end of the spectrum.

The pros and cons of guerrilla marketing today

Guerrilla marketing may have fallen out of fashion to a certain extent, but there is one major advantage to this; as I alluded to above, guerrilla marketing can only be effective if it is fresh, new and unique, which is difficult if not impossible to achieve if everyone else is doing it too.

This gives SMEs and brands that are willing to consider guerrilla marketing an advantage, and a new way to approach and reach out to prospects in a way that they’re not expecting or may not have seen before. This increases the chances of success for any campaign, assuming that there are enough viable prospects out there to target.

Guerrilla marketing can also be a very low-cost way of promoting a brand, product or service, and one that can reach a wide and diverse audience. However, this latter has disadvantages too, because it is hard to target specific demographics in detail, other than by choosing the location (and potentially, timing) of the campaign to reach the desired demographics. For instance, if you are targeting young professionals with a high level of disposable income, the business district or the area around local commuter train stations at rush hour would be an obvious place to start.

Guerrilla marketing is also often fairly time intensive, which is the trade-off for its generally low cost, but not everyone has the time to dedicate to an immersive, ongoing guerrilla campaign.

Finding and executing a successful guerrilla marketing campaign also requires a lot of innovation and creativity, in order to identify a viable approach and put it to work effectively. Not everyone’s mind works in the right way to be able to achieve this, and even if you pull one great idea out of the hat to get you going, being able to continually brainstorm and innovate new and novel guerrilla approaches can soon become very taxing.

One final sticking point for many marketers and brand decisionmakers is that it is very hard to correlate an uptick in sales or brand awareness with the guerrilla campaign that triggered it; you can never know for sure what is going on in the minds of your prospects or what made a campaign appeal to them and resonate with them, or what drove a purchasing decision later on.

For marketing departments and brands that are very data-driven, it can be hard to justify taking a shot in the dark with a guerrilla approach, particularly when it comes to convincing the holders of the purse strings that such an approach would be worthwhile without strong supporting analytics to demonstrate this.

How and why guerrilla marketing can work for SMEs

Guerrilla marketing is in many ways perfectly designed for SMEs; if you’re running a small business or involved in the creative side of a medium-sized organisation, innovating and being willing to venture out of your comfort zone and take a gamble ultimately comes with the territory.

Guerrilla marketing can be very cheap to execute (once you’ve discounted the time and creative energies it takes), which places it within the reach of even sole traders and brand-new start-ups.

As a SME or local business, you will also have developed a great level of understanding of your real-world shoppers, who they are, why they chose you, and what they want. You will also doubtlessly know the local area around your business pretty well too, which gives you a head start on planning and executing a successful approach.

This might extend as far as setting a “breadcrumb trail” of marketing collateral between a busy shopping precinct and your own store for prospects to follow, or be as simple as knowing which areas to target with posters and promotions or at what time of day the footfall in a busy area will be the greatest.

Additionally, if you are very hands-on in the running of your business (as most decision makers at SMEs usually are) you will be able to go some way towards bridging the gap between identifying cause and effect when it comes to assessing the efficacy of your campaign. Being out there on the shop floor, talking to prospects and customers, finding out what the general vibe is and talking to the staff about their customers can all help you to work out who is shopping with you and why, and how they came to be there in the first place.

Potential issues for SMEs using guerrilla marketing

Guerrilla marketing is often associated with pushing boundaries and trying new and novel approaches. These things can help to increase the impact of any campaign, but there are a number of pitfalls waiting to trap the unwary, and some potential issues you should take pains to avoid.

If you’re using stickers, posters and other physical forms of ad collateral to get your message across, wallpapering the whole town with them might have the desired effect, but it is also apt to get you into trouble with the local council too. Take care over where you place your marketing collateral, check the rules, and be thoughtful about your execution.

For instance, one campaign that was executed locally to me during my time at university (and perhaps the one that triggered my initial interest in guerrilla marketing in the first place) involved a local business placing flyers on cars in a number of public car parks. Not only did they fall foul of the rules of some of the council-owned car parks that they did this in, but another issue also arose that the company in question had not foreseen.

When it rained, the flyers became stuck to the windscreens of the cars that they have been placed on, not only ruining the flyers themselves, but making them difficult for drivers to remove in order to be able to drive off. This not only negated the effectiveness of the campaign, but hampered brand perception and angered the very prospects that the business was trying to target.

Something else to bear in mind with guerrilla marketing campaigns (and any other type of campaign for that matter) is that if you are taking on a competitor and using a guerrilla campaign to demonstrate your advantages over them, you must also be very careful not to impinge upon their copyrights, make slanderous or libellous claims (even accidentally) or trespass upon their physical property or ad collateral.

Similarly, anything that is likely to be disruptive (such as a flash mob, pop-up store or installation) that will take place in public may require permits and permissions; the usual rules apply to guerrilla marketing just as they do to anything else. Anything that involves trespassing on or altering someone else’s property, or interfering with another person or brand’s goods or property should be discounted as a terrible idea immediately too!

Best practices for implementing a guerrilla marketing campaign successfully

The exact form or forms that your own guerrilla marketing campaign takes can be numerous and varied, and creating an effective campaign may well require the integration of several different approaches simultaneously, or along a set timeline.

For instance, if you were to put on a pop-up show or demonstration in the street, make it easy for people who stop to watch or who walk by and notice it to find out more and follow up – with supporting collateral such as posters or clues, and flyers for people to take and refer back to later.

Guerrilla marketing might be a fairly unique marketing concept, but the general principles of launching an effective marketing campaign still apply. This means that before you plan an approach and start brainstorming for ideas to make it a reality, you need to first determine what you want to achieve, what would support this, and what type of prospects you’re targeting.

You should also factor in how you will be able to determine if the campaign is successful, taking into account other approaches or reasons that might be causing a simultaneous uptick in trade too.

Anything interactive that you can use to engage with prospects on a personal level helps a campaign, so rather than simply sending someone to stand in the street holding out flyers, work on making eye contact, generating an interaction, and talking to each prospect that you wish to pass a leaflet to.

Keep your eye on the goal of getting people talking and spreading the word to generate an ongoing organic buzz for you, and remember that a successful approach to one person that will tell their friends about it is more valuable than a generic approach that is too wide and diluted to resonate with individual prospects and leave a lasting impression.

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