What Is Guerrilla Marketing? 4 Types and Examples to Delight Consumers

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Guerrilla marketing uses public spaces in creative, unexpected ways to delight passersby.

[Featured image] Man with dark hair and glasses stands at Time Square looking up at the advertisements.

Guerrilla marketing is an advertising approach that uses “guerrilla” warfare tactics, or the element of surprise (think ambushes or raids), to attract customers to the brand. This exciting form of marketing is especially effective for driving publicity, in which an unconventional and inventive display elicits wonder or shock. 

Invented in 1984 by advertising executive Jay Conrad Levinson, guerrilla marketing signified a shift from traditional media (print, television, and radio) to digital and viral marketing. Levinson spent the first decades of his career in advertising at Leo Burnett and JWT, working on revolutionary campaigns such as the Energizer Bunny, United’s Friendly Skies, the Pillsbury Doughboy, and the Jolly Green Giant. He then conceptualized guerrilla marketing—fun campaigns executed on a low budget to generate buzz in public spaces. 

With guerrilla marketing, a company could spread a campaign without spending a ton on advertising.

What is guerrilla marketing?

Guerrilla marketing is an advertising strategy that uses unconventional tactics to delight and attract customers. It is an alternative to—and disrupts—traditional marketing, such as print media, television commercials, billboards, and direct mail. Instead, it focuses on disrupting public spaces and events with unusual, memorable images or activities that may lead to brand association or purchase.

Typically, guerrilla marketing relies on human interaction in urban areas to create a big impact on a small budget in hopes of spreading by word of mouth and social media. Guerrilla marketing grew in popularity in the early 2000s, and since then many ideas have been recycled. Today’s strategies must be extra fresh to compete for attention. These days, digital marketing has a higher return on investment (ROI) because it shows up where the consumers are—on the internet. Currently, 90 percent of Americans use the internet, and over the past decade, time spent online has doubled to six hours a day. When executed successfully, guerrilla marketing can scale up brand awareness on digital platforms.

Pros and cons of guerrilla marketing

Guerrilla marketing is unique in how it interacts with customers in surprising and participatory ways, but the tactic can come with some potential risks. If you choose to employ guerrilla marketing for your brand, keep these pros and cons in mind:

Pros:

  • Low budget: Guerrilla marketing can be cheap to pull off.

  • Memorable: There is potential for high impact and reach.

  • Fun: You get to be creative and generate unusual ideas to build a brand.

  • Gain insights: Based on people’s reactions, you can better understand how they feel about the brand.

  • Go viral: Your campaign could get shared on social media (either by the brand or by participants) for maximum exposure. Media outlets may also generate attention.

  • Build partnerships: You may be able to develop a mutually beneficial partnership with a location, park, festival, or another brand.

Cons:

  • Risk of failure: The brand is put on public display, which can backfire if it a poorly executed campaign flops. You could lose money or profits if unforeseen circumstances arise, such as a bad weather or political tensions. 

  • Can be embarrassing or scary: Some forms of guerrilla marketing employ ambushing, filming, or scare tactics that might embarrass, annoy, or frighten people. 

  • Controversial: You might run into legal issues or negative publicity, depending on the outcome of the campaign. For example, in 2007 Cartoon Network placed LED signs all over Boston to promote a TV show that created a bomb scare and cost them $2 million in fines [1].

  • Lack of approval: If a campaign is too risky or unconventional, it may not get approved by executives who would rather spend marketing dollars on more reliable strategies.

Types of guerrilla marketing

There are four main types of guerrilla marketing: outdoor, indoor, event ambush, and experiential. Some other exciting forms of guerrilla marketing fall within these four categories:

  • Viral: Encourages customers to share a brand message over the internet

  • Stealth or buzz: Advertising through product placement or undercover marketing

  • Ambient: Places advertisements on unusual locations or places

  • Projection: Projects images or videos onto a building or landscape

  • Astroturfing: Places paid reviews or discussion on forums like Reddit or Amazon

  • Grassroots: Targets a small group to spread awareness

  • Wild posting: Places posters onto the sides of buildings

  • Pop-up retail: Takes advantage of a trend with a temporary shop

1. Outdoor guerrilla marketing

Outdoor guerrilla marketing is the act of placing something unusual in an outdoor environment. This tends to be done in urban areas with plenty of foot traffic. Examples of outdoor guerrilla marketing include adding something to a statue, placing an oversized replica of a typically small object (like a cupcake) in a park, or putting objects in the streets (like IKEA’s sofas at bus stations in Australia). 

Example: GOLDTOE’s Wall Street takeover

When the brand GOLDTOE launched a new line of boxers and briefs in 2010, they dressed the New York City Stock Exchange bull in a giant pair of GOLDTOE underwear [2].

Takeaway: This tactic worked because it was simple, silly, and memorable. While it was risky to take over an iconic public statue, the company did not damage the property and received media coverage for its cheekiness (pun intended), without spending a lot of money.

2. Indoor guerrilla marketing

Indoor guerrilla marketing takes advantage of enclosed public spaces to generate hype. This could include university campuses, train stations, or museums. In 2009, T-Mobile sponsored a flash mob at Liverpool Street Station that has over 40 million views on YouTube, won TV commercial of the year at the British Television Advertising Awards, and translated to a 52 percent increase in sales.

Example: Frontline Fleas’ “Get Them Off Your Dog” campaign

Frontline Fleas bought out floor space in a shopping mall and placed an image of an itchy golden retriever dog on it. Shoppers on upper floors who looked down saw a dog covered in “fleas” that were actually humans walking on top of the photo, oblivious that they were now part of Frontline’s advertising [3].

Takeaway: This ambient campaign worked because it made customers look twice, shocking them when they spotted the moving fleas and then delighting them when they realized those “fleas” were people.

3. Event ambush guerrilla marketing

Event ambush guerrilla marketing promotes a product or service at a pre-existing event, such as a concert, sporting event, or festival, sometimes without permission. This type of marketing catches event attendees by surprise when something unusual occurs.

Example: Fiji Water’s Golden Globes photobomb

At the 2019 Golden Globes awards show, paparazzi snapped photos of celebrities posing on the red carpet, as is custom. Behind the unsuspecting movie stars, a model dressed in a dark blue dress holding a tray of Fiji Water photobombed nearly every shot. She stared directly into the camera for an unsettling effect. On the internet, the photos went viral, even generating a spoof Twitter account [4]. 

Takeaway: Strategic product placement at a famous televised event garnered brand attention. Starting as a quirky publicity stunt, #FijiGirl became a trending hashtag online.

4. Experiential guerrilla marketing

Experiential guerrilla marketing can take place anywhere (outdoors, indoors, at an event) and enlists the public to interact with the brand. This can range from a free sample of beer, a slide into a pit of branded pillows, or subway stairs that look and sound like piano keys—Volkswagen’s campaign and social experiment found that 66 percent more people than usual opted to take the stairs when it was a fun experience [5].

Example: Coca-Cola’s “Happiness Machine” campaign

Coca-Cola launched its global “Happiness Machine” campaign in 2009 to encourage people to recognize life’s simple pleasures. Students at St. John’s University in New York were shocked when one Coke purchase from the vending machine dispensed an endless supply of soda bottles. Then, a hand reached out from the dispenser with flowers, then sunglasses, then pizza, and finally, a giant sub sandwich. 

At the National University of Singapore, the vending machine read “Hug Me” where it usually says “Coca-Cola.” Instead of money, the machine only responded to hugs as currency, dispensing a free Coke for students who put their arms around the machine [6].

Takeaway: Coca-Cola is famous for its high emotional impact campaigns. By delighting unsuspecting students in these experiential activations, the brand continued its legacy of positive association.

Is guerrilla marketing right for your brand?

Guerrilla marketing can leave a lasting and emotional impression. But it can also backfire if it is not well executed. Here are some questions to help you decide if this tactic is right for your brand:

  • Do you have a fun, original idea for engaging or surprising potential customers?

  • Does your idea leverage the local space or culture in a respectful way?

  • Can passersby participate in your campaign? How?

  • Is the idea aligned with your brand positioning? What is the purpose of the message you want to send?

  • Is it legal? Is it controversial?

  • Will you be able to document and measure your campaign’s results?

  • Does it have the potential to go viral?

Once you consider the potential risks and ROI, you may be ready to launch a guerrilla marketing campaign. Typically, guerrilla marketing works best for bigger brands who target a specific location and rely on word of mouth to spread the campaign nationally or globally. However, small local brands can also pop up at events to boost credibility. No matter the industry, guerrilla marketing can be a low-cost way to delight potential customers.

Next steps

Learn the strategies behind making your brand go viral with Viral Marketing and How to Craft Contagious Content from the University of Pennsylvania, available on Coursera. Interested in a career in marketing? Try a course from the University of London’s bachelor program to see what it might be like to earn your marketing degree online.  

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Article sources

1. Adult Swim Wiki. “Boston Bomb Scare, https://adultswim.fandom.com/wiki/Boston_Bomb_Scare. Accessed February 8, 2022.

2. PR Newswire. “Wall Street Bull Feels Bullish With His New Pair of Underwear, https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/wall-street-bull-feels-bullish-with-his-new-pair-of-underwear-103131159.html.” Accessed February 9, 2022.

3. Ads of the World. “Frontline Mall, https://www.adsoftheworld.com/media/ambient/frontline_mall.” Accessed February 9, 2022.

4. E! News. “Still Thirsty? Look Back on Fiji Water Girl's Epic Photobombs at the Golden Globes, https://www.eonline.com/news/1103713/stay-thirsty-looking-back-on-fiji-water-girl-s-epic-photobombs-at-the-golden-globes.” Accessed February 9, 2022.

5. YouTube. “The Fun Theory 1 – Piano Staircase Initiative | Volkswagen, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SByymar3bds&ab_channel=Volkswagen.” Accessed February 8, 2022.

6. The Coca-Cola Company. “Coca-Cola "Happiness Machine" Wins Top Honors at the 2010 CLIO Awards, https://investors.coca-colacompany.com/news-events/press-releases/detail/28/coca-cola-happiness-machine-wins-top-honors-at-the-2010.” Accessed February 9, 2022.

7. Time. “Here’s How the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Actually Started, https://time.com/3136507/als-ice-bucket-challenge-started/.” Accessed February 9, 2022.

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