The Unexpected History of Guerrilla Marketing

Seductive bar girls begging you to buy them a drink. 25-foot popsicles. Billboards that turn power lines into gangly nose hairs, and vending machines that send the thirsty and unsuspecting on an interactive spy mission through a crowded train station.

These are just a few of the wild and wacky marketing tactics that fall under the umbrella of “Guerrilla Marketing” – traditional advertising’s hip younger brother.

Businesses of all sizes are coming out of the television and into our everyday lives. They’re carving shark bites into cars, handing out fake parking tickets and parachuting tampons from airplanes over beaches, all in an attempt to get your attention.

When did the marketing madness start? Does any of this actually work?

We’re going to plunge into guerrilla marketing’s long, quirky history to find out. Hold on tight!

What the heck is guerrilla marketing?

First things first, it has nothing to do with furry primates. The term “guerrilla marketing” was inspired by guerrilla warfare: Small groups of militants or civilians using irregular tactics to win battles against a much stronger, better armed opponent.

The most basic definition of guerrilla marketing is using unconventional tactics to beat out your competition and spread your marketing message.

But in a lot of ways, guerrilla marketing is defined by what it isn’t more than what it is.

In traditional marketing the primary investment is money - and businesses need a ton of it if they want to earn a lot of exposure.

With guerrilla marketing, creativity and imagination are the big investment, in an effort to make effective use of every last cent of what is usually a limited budget (though major brands can play, too). The marketing is usually a spectacle all on its own, relying on word-of-mouth to spread its message instead of paying for air time.

“Guerrilla marketing is the truth made fascinating. It’s going after conventional goals using unconventional means. Your prime investments in guerrilla marketing don’t have to be money – they should be time, energy, imagination and information.”

- Jay Conard Levinson, Author of “Guerrilla Marketing” [Link]

Where traditional marketing plays it safe with radio spots, TV commercials and glossy ads in magazines, guerrilla marketing gets wild and unchained with unconventional tactics executed in unexpected places with the goal of surprising people with something they didn’t see coming.

“Even though guerrilla marketing can use traditional methods (such as print, TV, and radio) to get the word out, what sets it apart is that it breaks traditional expectations by applying these tools in a different way.”

- Jonathan Margolis, Guerrilla Marketing for Dummies

And where so much of traditional marketing is repeating the same message over and over again, no two guerrilla marketing campaigns are ever exactly the same.

“If you can buy it on a rate card, it is not guerrilla.”

- Sam Ewen, Partner & Creative @ Guild, Fast Company's #1 Guerrilla Marketer

Guerrilla marketers will succeed or fail on their ability to create a one-of-a-kind buzz in a way that’s completely unique to the brand, product and target audience.

How did guerrilla marketing get started?

Guerrilla marketing was happening long before anyone knew it by that name. To understand its origins, we’ve got to step back – WAY back – to when advertising itself was a new concept.

From the moment the first papyrus poster was slapped up on the wall of an ancient Egyptian marketplace around 4000BC, advertising has always been about stealing the customer’s attention. At one point, every form of advertising was new and novel.

In the 18th century, the first advertisements started showing up in newspapers. At the time, even these ads had some element of “guerrilla” to them. Though crude and basic, they had little noise to compete with.

One century later, Thomas J. Barratt (the “Father of Modern Advertising”) started to shake things up like a Victorian-era Don Draper. While working for the Pears Soap company, he pioneered the use of slogans, images and catch-phrases to associate a product with a desired perception.

Barratt also pulled off one of the first and best guerrilla marketing stunts of all time when he imported half a million French coins, imprinted them with Pears’ name and released them into circulation. This generated a HUGE amount of publicity… and an act of parliament. Barratt continued to make waves when he bought the rights to “Bubbles”, a famous painting by John Everett Millais, and had a bar of Pears’ soap painted into the foreground.

Coin defaced with an advertisement for Pears Soap, courtesy of The British Museum

It was creative approaches like this that laid the groundwork for brands to start thinking about different, more innovative ways to get attention. In fact, you might even argue that marketers had to be more creative before mass marketing mediums like radio and TV came about.

By the 20th century, mass marketing was in full swing and attitudes in marketing were changing. Businesses began to see that instead of just making people aware of your product, marketing could be used to “sublimate” human instincts and make a consumer want to purchase something they otherwise never would have.

It was psychologist Walter D. Scott who first suggested that “[Man] is reasonable, but he is to a greater extent suggestible”. The marketer held all the information and wielded advertising like a tool of mass-indoctrination, appealing to emotions to influence rational thought and purchase behavior.

When the first radio stations switched on in the early 1920’s, businesses began to sponsor entire programs, paying to have their brand mentioned throughout. Later, short blocks of advertising were introduced as they were easier to sell – and more lucrative.

The same thinking carried over to television in the 1950’s, and by the time cable television was humming in the 1980s there were entire channels devoted to advertising. MTV, for example, made ads themselves the spectacle, getting people to tune in just to be marketed to.

But with time, two terrible things started happening to marketers.

First, consumers began to get sick of being constantly inundated with ads. With every business vying for their attention, people were getting used to tuning out marketing messages and ignoring advertisements across every channel. It was all too predictable.

They’d mute TV commercials (and as the tech emerged, fast-forward or avoid them altogether), hang up on telemarketers and flip past the ads in magazines faster than Usain Bolt on a Red Bull binge.

Second, advertising prices kept increasing, despite the weakening impact of traditional ads. Businesses were shelling out cash to the same old advertising methods but earning less revenue in return.

Something had to change.

Along came the guerrilla.

In the early 80s, the U.S. was in a corporate crisis. Small businesses were desperate to find ways to compete with juggernauts who could easily out-buy them in the media.

In 1983, the term “guerrilla marketing” was first popularized by Jay Conrad Levinson (a seasoned marketer with senior credentials from ad agencies J. Walter Thompson and Leo Burnett) in his book by the same title.

For Levinson, guerrilla marketing was all about the little guy with limited resources besting corporate giants by using unconventional marketing tactics rooted in creativity and a willingness to take smart risks.

Instead of playing by the marketing “rules” of paying for exposure in traditional ad channels, he proposed that marketers could do something clever, funny, outrageous or unique to get customer attention - but most of all, it had to be surprising.

The prospect of earning a huge audience at a relatively low cost was a really attractive idea, and small businesses took it to heart. It wasn’t long before big brands tuned in and started up campaigns of their own.

And then, guerrilla marketing made a new best friend.

When the internet made its commercial debut in the mid-90’s, marketers faced a new kind of challenge.

Marketing’s primary goal used to be telling the audience something they didn’t know before – but now consumers had a fast and easy way to fact-check, share their experiences and discuss brands on an unprecedented scale.

With the web, the paradigm has shifted in guerrilla marketing’s favor.

Now, marketing needs to make a brand memorable, engaging and entertaining enough that a consumer bought into the brand’s message – exactly what guerrilla marketing is best at. The same online channels used to scrutinize brands can also be used to share brilliant marketing ideas with a seemingly limitless worldwide audience.

One of the earliest successful guerrilla campaigns with an online dimension was staged for the low-budget horror flick The Blair Witch Project. “Missing” posters went up for the victims of the film, a website was launched with information about the Blair Witch and the whole thing was treated like real-life event. The marketing was so convincing, many people refused to believe the story wasn’t real.

The Blair Witch Project “Missing” Poster
Marketing strategy created by the production company, Haxan Films

Today, guerrilla efforts just like the Blair Witch can “go viral” on a platform that’s accessible to even the smallest business. The playing has never been so level for those with a bright idea and the guts to try it out.

The doors of creativity have been kicked wide open. Advertising can be fun again!

Common types of guerrilla marketing

What does guerrilla marketing look like out in the wild?

Ambient Marketing

Anything can be an ad! Ambient marketing focuses on getting advertisements in unusual places where they wouldn’t normally be found. In some cases, ambient marketing turns a “place” into an advertisement by using objects or items in the environment in a clever way. Ambient marketing doesn’t necessarily push the product, but creates awareness by creating sights and scenarios that are out of the ordinary.

Created by Tribal DDB, Hamburg

Guerrilla marketing enthusiast Steven Severn highlights one remarkably affordable and highly effective campaign came from Novocortex, a Netherlands ad agency working for a car insurance client. Using an innovative print medium called “static paper”, the company placed huge “scratches” on cars to make it look like someone had pulled a hit-and-run. When the surprised and angry car owner went to investigate, they discovered the easy-to-remove sticker and a clever message from the insurance company. The campaign cost less than 1,000 Euros, was published in over 20 blogs and received over 42,000 free impressions in just three weeks.

“Repairing your damages can be as easy as removing this sticker.”
Novocortex

Sometimes, ambient marketing can backfire. A world-famous mishap came in 2007, when a guerrilla marketing campaign for a TV show, Aqua Team Hunger Force caused the Boston Bomb Scare. The guerrilla marketing agency created by Sam Ewen, Interference Inc. discreetly placed battery-powered LED placards, bearing the images of characters from the show, in unexpected locations around the city. A concerned citizen informed police of the harmless blinking signs, and soon, highways, train stations and other major areas of the city were on lockdown. The campaign resulted in a $2 million fine which was negotiated by Time Warner and the cities involved - but the stunt got international media coverage.

Aqua Team Hunger Force placards caused a bomb scare.
Interference Inc

“Don't create controversy for the sake of getting noticed. You want the visitor to remember the brand as much as they remember the tactic.”

- Sam Ewen. Partner & Creative @ Guild, Fast Company's #1 Guerrilla Marketer.

Ambush Marketing

There’s nothing quite as nice as a free ride. With ambush marketing, the advertiser’s goal is to piggyback off of someone else’s promo – usually that of a major event – to capitalize on the publicity without paying any sponsorship fee.

One of the most notable recent ambush marketing campaigns was pulled off by Beats By Dre headphones at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. Though not an official sponsor, the company gave exclusive headphones to dozens of athletes who wore them on camera. The company went as far as supplying custom-designed headphones emblazoned with the Union Jack to members of the British team. The move was met with controversy and outcry from the IOC, but the company netted millions of dollars in exposure and saw a 42% increase in sales following the event without suffering so much as a slap on the wrist.

Chinese swimmer Sun Yang sports Beats by Dr Dre.

Startup company WePay gave attendees at PayPal’s developer conference a rather chilly reception. PayPal had recently taken heat for “freezing” customer accounts, and WePay saw an opportunity. They created an enormous block of ice with money inside that carried the message “PayPal Freezes Accounts – Unfreeze Your Money”. The ice block was wheeled right to the front doors of the conference, and WePay earned some serious media attention (and the ire of PayPal).

BMW vs. Audi: Checkmate.
Fought between Juggernaut Advertising and Venables Bell & Partners

Sometimes, ambush marketing takes advantage of another company’s advertisements instead of an event. Newcastle Brown Ale turned heads when its marketing agency, Droga5 used a quick-witted print campaign to mock Stella Artois, while nobody can forget the street war between Audi and BMW, involving competing billboards and, eventually, a small blimp.

Presence Marketing

They say half the battle is just showing up. Presence marketing aims to make the business name recognizable by putting it in contexts where it shows up daily.

One of the greatest examples of this is “tissue-pack marketing”, a phenomenon that started in Japan as early as the 1960s’. Advertisers put their branding on tissue packs that are handed out at train stations and in public areas. Because they’re useful, they’re less likely to be thrown away and stick with the consumer throughout the day.

Something as simple as handing out mugs, pens and other office items emblazoned with your brand logo could be considered a form of presence marketing.

Online, presence marketing often takes the form of online interactions on social media, or prominent placement in search results. The goal is always to show up – and show up often.

Astroturfing

If grassroots is creating a natural movement, astroturfing is its ugly cousin. Astroturfing attempts to fabricate a consumer movement while at the same time giving the marketing the appearance of being a grassroots phenomenon. In reality, supporters are paid for their positive endorsement and incentivized to spread positive information. Marketers will pay people to create fake blogs and post manufactured comments in forums.

The tactic works like a charm, so long as nobody discovers the rouse. Then, things go south quickly.

Microsoft was accused of penning thousands of letters to newspapers posing as concerned citizens who disagree with the antitrust suit being made against the company, while graphics card manufacturer Nvidia angered their once-ravenous fan base when it was discovered the company was bombarding consumer forums with fake, glowing posts about their product.

Undercover/Buzz Marketing

Undercover marketing (sometimes called buzz or stealth marketing) attempts to sell a consumer on a product or idea without them ever knowing they’re being hit with a sales pitch. Sales agents pose as average Joes and create scenarios that put the product front and center in a way that just seems natural, sometimes getting the consumer to interact with the product themselves.

It’s a little devious – and very effective.

Interference Inc. and Fathom Communications pulled off one of the most memorable undercover marketing campaigns for Sony Ericsson when they launched their T68i, the first cell phone with a digital camera. 60 different actors across 10 major cities posed as couples looking to get their picture taken. They'd ask strangers to snap a shot - then hand them the cell phone and talk excitedly about all of the phone's features. The effort propelled the T68i to become one of the best selling phones of the year.

Wild Postings

One of the timeless methods of guerrilla marketing is wild postings: Plastering posters, stickers and other print materials all over a concentrated area to draw attention. Marketers can get really creative with this one, coordinating the printed material by size or color for dramatic effect.

Because of its affordability and ease of execution, wild postings remains a tactic heavily used by small businesses. Still, it’s not uncommon to see movies, albums and events advertised this way.

Experiential Marketing

This is a highly active and engaged form of guerrilla marketing that connects people with your brand through a shared experience and capitalizes on the immediate emotional responses that come out of that interaction. The goal is to engage as many senses as possible. In most cases, the experience is intended to be documented and shared elsewhere, whether it's online through videos and social media, or through word of mouth.

Some of the most well known examples of guerrilla marketing are experiential marketing campaigns by major brands. Take, for example, the time Adidas opened the “D Rose Jump Store”, a one-day installation in London that offered the chance to meet the NBA superstar and earn yourself a free pair of shoes. The catch? You needed to be able to jump 10 feet to reach them.

Another great example from a lesser-known brand: Granata Pet food delighted dog owners when they created a series of billboards where dog walkers could check in on Foursquare. Upon check-in the billboard would dispense dog food for their furry friends.

Coke Zero's stunning experiential campaign for the Skyfall launch.
Implemented by Duval Guillaume, Belgium

Shortly after England's 2-1 defeat by Italy in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, UK-based betting company Paddy Power locked a man in a cage and hung him in front of a billboard for the 'crime' of backing Italy. M2M, the agency that devised the campaign for Paddy Power, worked to design and produce the specially-made billboard within hours of Italy's victory. The accompanying Twitter campaign encouraged people to take 'selfies' with the traitor, capitalising on another recent craze.

But the example that takes the cake for affordability is definitely that of Loctite, who wanted to advertise their new Super Glue 3 product. All the company had to do was superglue a coin to the sidewalk, stick a tiny little promo sticker just above it, fire up the camera and watch as people tried in vain to pick up the cash.

Alternative Marketing

This one’s a little tougher to nail down. The basic idea of alternative marketing is publicity earned through events that seem completely unrelated to the company itself. Something else makes the news, and the brand is just along for the ride.

For example, Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks made headlines in 2013 for his habit of munching Skittles on the sidelines during games. The company hadn’t planned any celebrity endorsement – Lynch simply loved the product and the Seahawks were having a record year. His casual snacking created a whirlwind of demand for Skittles, with fans showering the superstar in candy whenever he scored a touchdown.

What makes guerrilla marketing so effective?

We’ve seen that guerrilla marketing can bring home the bacon. What is it about this rogue approach to marketing that’s so powerful?

As it turns out, successful guerrilla marketing is the product of three “effects”:

The “surprise” effect

Guerrilla marketing counters our all that by creating unfamiliar experiences that consumers literally can’t help but tune into.

Psychology has shown us that when we see, hear or experience something surprising (experiences that break with our expectations), our brains react by suspending other activities and immediately directing our attention directly towards the unusual stimulus (Derbaix and Vanhamme, 2003; Meyer & niepel, 1994).

But here’s the real kicker: We actually process surprising stimuli on a deeper level than everyday events (Waddill & McDaniel, 1998). Surprise is a powerful enough emotion to pry us out of apathy, lower our guard for a moment and give marketers a brief window of our undivided attention.

Surprise can be created by using humor, absurdity, or even a shocking message. With methods like ambient marketing, unconventional ad formats or unusual placement surprise audiences and help them get them emotionally invested.

The “diffusion” effect

For guerrilla marketing to work, it’s got to spread like wildfire. Thankfully, guerrilla marketing enters the equation with one important advantage: It plays with our emotions.

Research shows that when we have a strong emotional response to an experience, we’re more motivated to share that experience with others. It’s the secret behind that coveted “Word of Mouth” marketers dream about.

But having an emotionally engaged audience doesn’t mean marketers can stay passive. Viral marketing, buzz marketing and guerrilla PR are all tools that try to help stimulate diffusion and keep the conversation going, in some cases long after the marketing effort is over.

Viral marketing refers to tapping into consumer-controlled marketing channels, like social media, and making the experience easy to share. Think of things like online videos, hashtags or images that help get people talking.

Buzz marketing brings “buzz agents” (consumers) into the marketing process by making them a part of the process. That might involve giving people samples, sharing insider info or offering other sharing incentives like the chance to win a contest.

While the other forms of diffusion are peer-to-peer, guerrilla PR means capitalizing on the media exposure brands earn when you get the press interested in your marketing effort.

The “low-cost” effect

In old school advertising, the cost of your promotion was usually determined by how many people you would be able to reach. That’s why Super Bowl ads and front-page placement cost a small fortune. With guerrilla marketing, all bets are off. You can reach an enormous audience with very little money if that’s the way you choose to go about it, and there’s no limit to how far those dollars can take you.

But the “low-cost” effect is a bit of a misnomer, especially in an age when major brands sometimes dump thousands of dollars into a single marketing effort. In reality, “low-cost” describes the drastic reduction in the cost-per-impression that happens when the first two effects – surprise and diffusion – open up the floodgates for exposure.

Where is guerrilla marketing headed?

Things have really picked up since the 1980s. What was once a revolutionary tactic reserved for small businesses is now a global phenomenon, with brands of all sizes competing to outdo each other with clever stunts, captivating experiences and outlandish ideas.

But even if budgets are bigger and brands are more aggressive, inexpensive, innovative ideas haven’t lost an inch of ground. In a war where the most creative minds win, even small businesses can hit a home run with a tiny investment.

“These feats require an artist’s sensibility — someone who is focused, pragmatic, and creative.”

- Jonathan Margolis, Guerrilla Marketing for Dummies

One thing that HAS changed a lot since Levinson first coined the phrase is the way people share their experiences. The internet has opened new avenues of communication, and marketers have begun to dream up marketing schemes that mesh offline activities and online social networks to earn even greater exposure in real time.

“We are seeing a lot of hybrid online/offline activity. Physical executions that have social tie-in, either for participation, reward or recognition of being at an event. The emotional connection between brand and consumer works best in physical spaces - and combined with unexpected experiences and smart environments, this is the future of what we are doing.”

- Sam Ewen. Partner & Creative @ Guild, Fast Company's #1 Guerrilla Marketer.

And though it may not be a completely recent development, guerrilla marketing tactics have continued to grow outside of the business world and become adopted by non-profits, advocacy groups, politicians and anyone who wants to send a message. The 2014 World Cup is a prime example – while some protestors have taken to rioting, others have turned to “wild postings” of a different nature: Huge, evocative graffiti pieces sending the clear message that Brazil’s decision to host the games has had enormous negative implications for many of the country’s citizens. That these pieces are receiving international coverage stands as proof of guerrilla marketing’s power to steal attention.

The question is, will guerrilla marketing lose its effectiveness the same way traditional channels have?

Those who repeat the same campaigns or lean on the same tactics are bound to see their impact dwindle over time. The more people can predict what’s coming, the less guerrilla marketing will succeed.

But the lifeblood of the guerrilla marketer is creativity; doing unexpected things in an unprecedented way. For as long as people have the ability to be surprised, there will always be new ways to catch them off guard.

Felix Baumgartner on the edge of space.

It would seem the even the sky is not the limit to guerrilla marketing’s potential. The Red Bull Stratos project saw Felix Baumgartner leap from 24 miles in the air in an offline stunt that was watched by over 8 million astonished onlookers on YouTube – just one more world record set that day.

That’s the beauty of guerrilla marketing: There are no boundaries to creativity. The answer to “What will they think of next?!” is impossible to answer – but when you find out, it’s bound to surprise you.

In the end, that’s really what it’s all about.

Special thanks to our expert contributors:

Sam Ewen
Partner, Creative at Guild.

Sam Ewen has been actively involved in the experiential marketing world for the last 20 years.Since starting his own agency, Interference Inc., Sam has been described as America's #1 Guerrilla Marketer by Fast Company and has been at the forefront of some of the most creative, high impact and unconventional marketing campaigns for traditional brands. Follow him on Twitter.

Jonathan Margolis
Guerrilla Marketing for Dummies

Jonathan Margolis co-authored Guerrilla Marketing for Dummies, and is the President of the michael alan group. Being named among the Top 100 Event Marketing Agencies in the USA, Jonathan dedicates himself to a new era and form of non-traditional marketing.
Follow him on Twitter.

Steven Severn
Guerrilla Cheese Marketing

Steven Severn is the Founder of GuerrillaCheeseMarketing.com, a blog dedicated to unconventional, experiential, and interactive Guerrilla Marketing tactics and trends. As an unconventional marketing enthusiast, Steven created the blog to inspire and educate others in the power of Guerrilla Marketing. Follow him on Twitter.