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

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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

[Featured image] A man in an orange parka stands in Times Square looking up at the advertisements.

Guerrilla marketing is an advertising approach that borrows the concept of “guerrilla” warfare, or the element of surprise, to communicate with target audiences. This form of marketing relies on unconventional and inventive displays to elicit wonder or shock and can be especially effective for driving publicity. 

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

How did guerrilla marketing start?

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—nontraditional campaigns executed on a low budget to generate buzz in public spaces. 

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What is guerrilla marketing?

Guerrilla marketing is an advertising strategy that uses unconventional tactics to delight and attract customers. It is an alternative to 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's ultimate goal is to scale up brand awareness on digital platforms.

Social media in particular is a digital marketing channel that can lend itself to guerrilla marketing tactics. Once a piece of disruptive content gets its intended audience's attention, it can go viral in a matter of minutes, as social media users share and repost the content on multiple social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Effective guerrilla marketing content for social media can take the form of eye-catching videos and images that catch the consumer by surprise. You might also succeed with giveaways and contests that support a good cause.

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:

Guerrilla marketing prosGuerrilla marketing cons
Spend less: Guerrilla marketing can be effective even on a low budget.Risk failure: The brand is put on public display, which can backfire if it a poorly executed campaign flops.
Have fun: You get to be creative and generate unusual ideas to build a brand.Risk loss: You could lose money or profits if unforeseen circumstances arise, such as a bad weather or political tensions.
Gain insights: Based on people's reactions, you can better understand how they feel about the brand.Embarrass or frighten an audience: Some forms of guerrilla marketing employ ambushing, filming, or scare tactics that might embarrass or frighten people.
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.Risk controversy: You might run into legal issues or negative publicity, depending on the outcome of the campaign.
Build partnerships: You may be able to develop a mutually beneficial partnership with a venue, organization, park, festival, or another brand.Lose stakeholder 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.

Guerrilla marketing controversy

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].

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Types of guerrilla marketing

There are four main types of guerrilla marketing: outdoor, indoor, event ambush, and experiential.

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.

In your research into guerrilla marketing, you may come across additional types besides the ones we've explored thus far. These can be a great way to achieve your marketing goals:

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

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For more ideas on what makes ideas catch on, watch this video from the Viral Marketing and How to Create Contagious Content Course:

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Learn how to make ideas stick, how to increase your influence, how to generate more word of mouth, and how to use the power of social networks to spread information and influence.

Is guerrilla marketing right for your brand?

Guerrilla marketing can leave a lasting and emotional impression on your target market. 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 and enhance other marketing efforts such as display advertising and social media marketing.

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Article sources

1

Adult Swim Wiki. “Boston Bomb Scare, https://adultswim.fandom.com/wiki/Boston_Bomb_Scare." Accessed January 17, 2023.

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