Advertising is changing fast. Traditional media channels like TV, print, radio, and direct mail are no longer the only way to reach audiences. Online media, social networks, and extensive branded experiences are becoming just as common.

Consumers, to some extent, have adapted to the deluge of information washing over them daily by becoming more adept at tuning out unwanted stimuli. So the question facing advertisers is: How do you grab the attention of people who are increasingly inured to advertising messages?

One answer: guerrilla marketing.

Broadly defined, guerrilla marketing — first popularized by Jay Conrad Levinson in his 1984 book of the same name — is a suite of techniques that surprises, confounds, and amazes audiences by presenting them with messages and encounters in ways and places they don’t expect to see them.

 

To Be Memorable, You Have to Be Different

Unusual or even bizarre marketing has the benefit of being highly noticeable and memorable, and thus it promotes word-of-mouth or buzz marketing.

Such campaigns are particularly useful for smaller brands, because they are typically less expensive than conventional marketing endeavours — in part because they last for just a brief time. The focus is on reach rather than frequency, and the interaction is often at a more personal level.

But the big guys know a good thing when they see it. Hence, Coca-Cola created a social media sensation with its “Happiness Machine” campaign, when a vending machine at St. John’s University “was rigged to dispense flowers, pizza and a six-foot sub resulting in a viral swish of happiness, generating more than 1 million views in the first week…”

Online gawkers loved watching people react to the happy surprises, and the project has since been repeated in several different iterations.

 

VIRAL BEFORE VIRAL

Even before the advent of viral-friendly social media, an imaginative idea could circle the globe at a rapid pace. Perhaps the most famous example occurred on April Fool’s Day 1996, when Taco Bell took out full-page ads in several major newspapers announcing that it had purchased the Liberty Bell and was renaming it the “Taco Liberty Bell.”

It caused an immediate reaction (even prompting a response from the White House), and by the time the dust had settled: “More than 600 stories were written about the publicity stunt by more than 400 outlets across the country…”

 

WORKING THE STREET

Street marketing is a major subset of guerrilla marketing. Not only is it highly personal, at times it requires the kind of secrecy and speed that doesn’t always allow for getting preauthorization.

Street artist Sheppard Fairey’s “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” meme started out as little more than a few wheatpastes and flypostings spread about Providence, Rhode Island, purely for the artist’s own amusement.

But guerrilla marketing sometimes takes on a life of its own. Eventually, Fairey’s images became so widely recognized that their popularity prompted the formation of OBEY, a streetwear fashion brand that trades on the kind of countercultural vibes that street art represents.

 

SOMETIMES IT’S BETTER TO ASK FOR FORGIVENESS THAN PERMISSION

Like the brand of warfare for which it takes its name, guerrilla marketing implies playing fast and loose with the rules, in some cases drawing the ire of local authorities. Of course, that inherent risk is part of what makes it so effective. If nothing were at stake, no one would bother to notice.

Sometimes the consequences can even end up working in a brand’s favor. As media outlets report on an infraction, they spread the story further than it might otherwise have traveled.

BMW found this out in 2003, when it received a ticket from the city of Houston to remove a fiberglass Mini Cooper it had mounted on a building as an innovative billboard. The story was picked up by the local news media and then spread widely on social media.

 

THE FOG OF WAR

However, there’s another big risk to guerrilla marketing: the possibility that you might lose control of your message. When your name travels by word-of-mouth, it’s hard to predict how it will mutate as the whispers travel down the lane. If the original message isn’t clear and easily understandable, it opens the door to potentially unwanted interpretations.

One of the most famous examples of a guerrilla marketing scheme gone awry was Cartoon Network’s 2007 promotion of the film adaptation of its Adult Swim program “Aqua Teen Hunger Force”. Small blinking LED signs featuring characters from the show were placed stealthily around the city of Boston — and were mistaken for explosive devices.

“The publicity stunt brought no laughs at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which mobilized federal counterterrorism teams for what officials thought was a coordinated threat in a major city.”

Guerrilla marketing is a powerful weapon, but it can be a doubled-edged sword. Rather than mass-disseminating information to a large audience, marketers engage smaller numbers of individuals in the hope that they’ll extend the message further. Individual attention increases the likelihood of an emotional reaction, which in turn, leads to greater memorability.

So: make sure you have honed your message optimally, are aware of the risks, and are prepared for the reaction.