Guerrilla Marketing 2010

Guerrilla marketing used to be easy to define. If a New Yorker happened to notice a Jeep Grand Cherokee driving up the side of a building near Madison Square Garden and stopped to watch, it was pretty obvious he’d been snared by a guerrilla stunt. Or if Londoners went down to the Tube and found a mock living room of Ikea furniture instead of government-issue concrete seating, here again the pedestrian could feel the hook pulling at his lip. But, of course, the obit has been written for the analog days. Budgets are tight, and the demand for immediate splash is enormous. The result of these realities has coalesced in the past year or so—guerrilla stunts with a decidedly social media bent.

But, as with most marketing that’s been bullied into the digital space, there’s no playbook to follow, and the sidewalk is strewn with evidence of how brands are feeling their way. Here’s how the early guerrilla categories are shaking out. Some start with the standard street stunt, post a vid on YouTube, then pray it goes viral (as Coke did with its rigged-up “Happiness Machine” this past summer). Others take it a step further by installing something provocative, asking consumers to participate in the gambit, then share their contributions online. That’s what Panasonic did when it left a 9-foot-tall pigeon in a London park as a way of encouraging people to take their own distorted perspective photos. Then there are brands that rely solely on a Web audience, not a live one, for all the buzz, such as the ballsy move by Euro carrier Germanwings, which sent a PR-sabotage group aboard a rival airline.

The guerrilla-meets-digital permutations are endless, but their very proliferation proves that the “street” in street-level marketing is no longer just the asphalt variety. “I’ve noticed in the last two years that there’s a bigger and bigger trend toward creating events that have social media hooks to them,” says Sam Ewen, president of New York-based guerrilla marketing firm Interference, Inc.

Breaking through the media clutter, however, is not any easier. YouTube has become so clogged with videos, Ewen says, that seriously funny street marketing that might have easily snared 100,000 views a year ago is now lucky to get 1,500. What about relying on Twitter for buzz? Same problem: Dilution. “If I have 10,000 Twitter followers, and they’re following 800 people, by the time they check in, my tweet’s so far down they’ll never see it.”

Digital’s influence on guerrilla has even compelled some marketers to get out of the stunts entirely and let the masses do it—a social-to-offline trend that starts with a crowd instead of hoping to draw one. “The best engagements that I see,” observes David Meerman Scott, author of The New Rules of Marketing and PR, “are when the audience is involved and participating while they are being entertained.”

Maybe so, but those schemes can also be the ones that backfire the loudest. Of course, even the biggest guerrilla-gone-wrong tales won’t be enough to deter brands from swaggering into this new realm. To follow, a number who have—some with terrific results, others with…Well, read on.

THE TARGET KALEIDOSCOPE

Never mind that unpleasant defection of Isaac Mizrahi two years back. Target has managed to prove that hiring high-end designers to do midrange collections has raised both its sales and its profile. But Tarjay’s efforts to tie its brand name to affordable luxe fashion have gone further still—specifically, to New York’s Fashion Week this past summer. Seeking to turn some beautiful heads, the retailer rented the too-cool-for-you Standard Hotel—as in, the whole hotel. Techies outfitted 155 exterior rooms with banks of LEDs. On August 18, when the sun went down, the lights went up. Throwing open the rooms’ white curtains, 66 dancers clad in day-glo skeleton suits undulated to a score by DJ Sam Spiegel while the LEDs blazed through a panoply of color combos—a Close Encounters-like light show reinterpreted for Gen Y eyeballs.