Updated on 21/02/2023

What is guerrilla marketing?

Talking about guerrilla marketing cannot be limited to a list of the main techniques used, no matter how ingenious. Instead, it’s worth talking about how the paradigm of communication has changed, not just from the point of view of technology, but rather, the relationship between message creators and users, between the company, mediated by marketing, and potential customers.

Guerrilla marketing: a bit of history

Guerrilla marketing was born in the 1970s as a reaction to the typical advertising approach of the previous decades: until that time (from the beginning of the 20th century and throughout the 1940s and 50s) it was a matter of convincing customers by reassuring and educating them, transmitting knowledge otherwise accessible only to professionals. The consumer had to be educated.


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Something has changed

In the very first episode of Mad Men, ad man Don Draper said: ”Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It is freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams the reassurance, that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay.” It was the mid-1960s and advertising campaigns were built on grand budgets, that allowed companies to buy large ads with the greatest possible visibility. As in previous decades, creative and marketing men, or “madmen” (made famous by Madison Avenue where the main New York agencies were based) worked to generate profits; to do so, they would have to reach and persuade a huge number of people.

But what happens if the desire for pure consumerism is replaced by introspection that goes to the collective soul of consumers? What do customers want? Happiness (which can be bought—toothpaste, new appliances equal happiness).

Consumers quickly learn to interpret messages, to organize them in hierarchies according to their personal priorities, memorizing only those ads that are useful for their daily lives and quietly ignoring everything else. Against the backdrop of a tumultuous political, economic and cultural season, the conditions for a dramatic shift in advertising communication are being prepared.

Jay Conrad Levinson: the “revolution” of guerrilla marketing

In 1983, Jay Conrad Levinson, former creative director of Leo Burnett and author of unforgettable campaigns (the Marlboro Man and Marlboro Country among them) wrote a book about his experiences in advertising and coined the expression “guerrilla marketing,” borrowing the terminology from military theory. One of the first to decline the military language in terms of marketing warfare with reference to large companies was, a few years earlier, Philip Kotler, who said that “Marketing is a war in which the enemy is competition and the consumer is the land of conquest.”

One of Levinson’s great intuitions was to transpose the warlike metaphor into American small and medium enterprises. Andrea Natella writes about this in his work, Guerrilla marketing, a conventional definition:

“It is thanks to this conception that Levinson’s guerrilla marketing is able to place itself at a strategic level for the company. The constraint of the military inferiority (i.e. budget) of the small business is the premise for being able to postulate the centrality of the creative function and the relationship with the customer.”

By the mid-1980s, the arsenal of Levinson was ready to be used by the many Davids who until then had fought an unequal war against the Goliath of corporate marketing.

Sneakers and hip hop: “My Adidas” by Run-DMC

In 1986, the rap group Run-DMC released the single “My Adidas,” which mentions the famous sneaker brand 22 times. The song immediately became a hit, radicalizing the link between a fashion and rap music and contributing to the sale of Adidas shoes worldwide. Legend has it that only after attending the performance of the song during a concert (rappers invited the public to keep the shoes unbuckled, strictly Adidas, high above the head) an executive manager offered the group an endorsement contract worth $1 million.

Given the same scenario today, we would probably be talking about influencer marketing. But at the time, it was one of the first guerrilla marketing actions, reckless and incredibly effective, able, among other things, to imprint a lasting mark on the habits of an entire generation.

About a decade later a media campaign, in perfect guerrilla-style, uses the internet in a way that today we would call disruptive and achieves commercial success using videos to fuel the short circuit between reality and fiction. According to Movieplayer, it was “a brilliant and memorable advertising campaign that radically changed cinematographic communication.”

The Blair Witch Project

A few desperate words, an apology, against a black background. Next, a montage of archival material, with the disturbing commentary of a television journalist in the background and then a close-up view of the face of a frightened girl. Behind her is a dark and motionless night. This opens the trailer for The Blair Witch Project (1999), the independent horror film that is often cited for its promotion mode as the first example of contemporary guerrilla marketing: a horror film that tells the story of three young filmmakers who suddenly disappeared in the woods of Maryland while working on a project about a mysterious witch.

The film’s directors, together with the production company’s marketing department, develop an absolutely innovative media strategy: digital content that quickly went viral, events, posters, a website where you could consult police reports and listen to the testimony of the locals. Even today, The Blair Witch Project is one of the top low-budget films with the highest box-office earnings ($248 million on a production cost of $60,000).

Guerrilla marketing: definition, tactics, misunderstandings

A definition

In one of his many interviews, Jay Conrad Levinson defines guerrilla marketing as the set of unconventional tactics used to achieve conventional goals (above all: profit) with a small budget. The guerrilla needs only three things: “time, energy, and imagination.” Beyond a few romantic, bizarre, or unrealistic formulas, Levinson’s theory proceeds by striking maxims, which can be translated into as many questions, outlining a rather sophisticated strategy that well-rooted in the main assumptions of traditional marketing:

– What is the identity of the business?
– What are the marketing objectives?
– How to achieve these goals?
– What is the company’s unique selling proposition?
– What are the targets?
– Are there niches that are easier to reach?
– Which marketing tools do we want to use?
– What is the budget available?

Most popular tactics

In an attempt to build a taxonomy of guerrilla marketing, this post has identified 13 popular tactics. The list has, of course, no claim to be complete or definitive.

1. Word-of-mouth (inventing strategic gossip or “secrets”)
2. Hand-to-hand (the physical and intimate sharing of products)
3. Graffiti and reverse graffiti (the latter uses dirty or damaged surfaces)
4. Stealth (product placements that people don’t notice)
5. Ambush (“ambush”, hijacking of the exhibition of large competitor events)
6. Flash mob (groups of people who perform an unusual or seemingly random act, before suddenly scattering)
7. Experiential (immersive experience in products and services)
8. Posters or stickers (sometimes cryptic, often numerous, in strategic positions)
9. Projections (e.g. on buildings, can sometimes be illegal)
10. Waiting Marketing (where recipients are waiting for something, for example a bus)
11. Treasure hunts (using clues to create a sense of intrigue)
12. Grassroots (aimed at existing fans who will naturally share your messages)
13. Ambient (ad placements that are unusual or unexpected, prompting viewers to perhaps stop and think)

Misunderstandings: what visibility?

In the first pages of the fourth edition of his book, Levinson writes: “guerrilla marketing is the truth made fascinating, and we all know that ordinary marketing is neither about the truth nor about making it fascinating. Guerrilla marketing is the chance to teach your prospects and customers how to achieve success, regardless of their goals. Guerrilla marketing is a circle: it starts with your idea, which aims to generate profits, and continues with the providential support of referral customers (customers who suggest to third parties to turn to the company for the quality and performance of its products or services).”

In other words, it’s much more than “guerrilla tactics” deployed in large numbers in the frantic search for a surprise effect that is increasingly difficult to achieve. The most successful guerrilla marketing is not only due to a unique and memorable campaign, but also and above all on the ability, through the viral word of mouth (difficult to predict and practically uncontrollable), to create and strengthen the identity of the brand, impacting people’s buying habits at a deeper level, over time.

In an interview on the Inside Marketing website, Andrea Frausin dwells on the misunderstandings of guerrilla marketing. In particular, he invites us to reflect on the true nature of the visibility that a brand can gain through one or more of these initiatives. “How useful is this spontaneous visibility in the long or medium term?” A single marketing action, explains Frausin, is never true guerrilla marketing, which should instead always be configured as “a mix of actions.”

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