The Hit and Run of Guerrilla Marketing


In 2018, Olly Bolton and Tom Proctor, co-founders of drinks company, What a Melon, entered a business competition run by Richard Branson’s Virgin Voom. They won the crowdfunding part of the contest and received as part of their prize… a double-decker bus.

Instead of selling the bus and using the funds to grow their new business, the pair modified it. They wrapped it in watermelon colors, removed the roof, and added a cocktail bar. They then parked the bus outside Selfridges department store.

That wasn’t the only guerrilla marketing activity the pair engaged in. They also decorated the wheels of electric bikes to look like watermelons and hired two people to cycle around London for nine hours each weekday handing out free drinks. Every evening, the demonstrators would park the bikes outside a different underground station so that the brand would be visible to commuters, a kind of free billboard advertising. They also took the bikes to Twitter HQ, and to newspaper and magazine publishers, ensuring that the media knew about the company. One result was that when What a Melon pitched its product to Itsu’s 66 outlets, the buyer told them that she had seen one of their bikes and thought the brand looked great. “It obviously wasn’t the deciding factor,” Bolton and Proctor told, “however it certainly helped us get a foot in the door with them.”

That’s how guerrilla marketing is supposed to work. It’s low cost: What a Melon paid the demonstrators just £10 an hour to ride their bikes around London. It’s also unconventional, creative, and highly effective. It can reach the parts that conventional advertising just can’t reach.

The term comes from a 1984 book by Leo Burnett creative director Jay Conrad Levinson. Guerilla Marketing: Easy and Inexpensive Strategies for Making Big Profits from Your Small Business, argued that successful marketing doesn’t have to require big budgets. It can replace large advertising spends with large amounts of creativity. In their review of the strategy, marketing professors Katherina Hutter and Stefan Hoffman defined guerrilla marketing as “an umbrella term for unconventional advertisement campaigns which aim at drawing the attention of a large number of recipients to the advertising message at comparatively little costs by evoking a surprise effect and a diffusion effect.” The key characteristics of a guerrilla campaign, they argue, are its surprise, low cost, and ability to spread a message widely.

The approach is particularly appealing to small businesses struggling to compete with larger rivals who can spend far more to win their markets. In his book, Levinson cites as an example a small independent bookstore with much larger bookstores as neighbors. One store unfolds a giant banner advertising large discounts. The other responds with an even larger banner also advertising big discounts. Both the banners are bigger than the independent store’s entire storefront. The store responds with a guerrilla technique: it produces its own banner with the words “Main Entrance.”

The story is appealing. We always want to root for David against Goliath, for the little guy using his wily ideas to outwit the big bully with his massive marketing muscles. When it happens, it’s always impressive.

In 2006, Tom Dickson promoted his Blendtec blender on the recently launched YouTube by tossing household objects into the top and asking “will it blend?” The answer, whether Dickson was attempting to blend a pool cue, a baseball, or an iPad, was usually “yes.” Each video would have cost no more than the production expenses and the price of the item being smashed in the blender, but they went viral. The company’s YouTube channel has now racked up almost 300 million views and has nearly 900,000 subscribers. It gave Blendtec a way to outmaneuver rivals as big as Black and Decker and Cuisinart.

It also gives non-profits, who are always looking for ways to make the most of their advertising budgets, a way to stretch the power of their donations. Amnesty International has highlighted the lack of free speech in Belorussia by taping pictures of dissidents to trees. The thick masking tape covers the dissident’s mouth. The 2014 Ice Bucket Challenge, which invited people to pour a bucket of iced water over their heads and challenge three other people to do the same, was far more successful than any traditional advertising campaign could have ever been. The campaign raised more than $220 million for research into motor neuron disease.

Usually, though, guerrilla marketing by small businesses is both smaller and less creative than Blendtec’s videos or the Ice Bucket Challenge’s viral reach. It’s more likely to consist of an ad stenciled on a local wall or sidewalk, or the business cards of sex workers left in public toilets or scattered in parks. In September 2020, a drone flying over Tel Aviv in Israel dropped small bags containing a couple of grams of cannabis over the city. The drop came from a Telegram group called Green Glider that campaigns for the legalisation of recreational drugs and was intended as a way of getting hits to consumers during lockdown. Plans to repeat the campaign in other cities were stymied by the arrest of the drone operators.

The problem is that while guerrilla marketing promises businesses with few funds a way of turning creativity and intelligence into revenues without the need for large marketing budgets, not every entrepreneur is bursting with creative marketing ideas. Their strengths will be in product development or management, not in advertising concepts. People who do have an awareness of the limits of the advertising world, and can think of ways to stretch them, are more likely to be working in the industry itself. They’re art directors at ad firms and copywriters with experience of pushing boundaries.

So while guerrilla marketing might have started—and acquired its reputation—as a way for small, nimble firms to beat large rivals, in practice some of the most creative guerrilla marketing campaigns are produced on behalf of big companies. And they’re planned by well-paid talent working at some of the biggest marketing agencies.

The Biggest Guerrillas in the Jungle

In 2011, Superette, a clothing company in New Zealand, used park benches to launch a particularly creative guerrilla marketing campaign. The company placed raised strips on the bottom slats of the benches so that they’d leave impressions on the backs of bare thighs. Women wearing short shorts were left with a temporary stamp on the backs of their legs that read “Short shorts on sale at Superette.” By carefully choosing the benches on which they placed the stamps, the company was able to make sure that their branding was only seen on the legs of their target audience.

It’s exactly the kind of low-cost creativity that guerrilla advertising is supposed to produce. Superette didn’t have to pay for giant billboards or for print advertising. It turned members of the public into temporary and unwitting human advertisements for products that they hadn’t even bought. That made it even broader than the free advertising that stores get when they print their name on the front of shopping bags. But the idea didn’t come from Superette; it came from an advertising company called DDB Auckland. This was guerrilla marketing from the traditional advertising industry.

In 2006, watch company IWC decorated the straps in airport busses into with their own watch straps and faces. Anyone trying not to fall onto their luggage on the way to the plane would have to slip the company’s strap over their wrist. A message on the side of the strap read: “Try it here: the Big Pilot’s Watch.”

Again, it was a piece of guerrilla-style creative thinking that would have forced people to take part in the campaign whether they wanted to or not. (Although most people would probably have held onto the strap rather than placed it around their wrists.) But like Superette’s campaign it didn’t come from a small nimble company desperate for a way to reach audiences but lacking the funds for a big campaign. The ad came from German advertising company Jung von Matt which has worked with firms as big as BMW, Bosch, and Adidas.

And some of the most dramatic guerrilla marketing campaigns have both come from many of the world’s biggest brands and no doubt cost at least as much as a traditional major campaign. If guerrilla advertising needs to be unconventional and surprising, then Nike’s use of giant soccer balls crushing cars and apparently destroying the sides of buildings during the Brazil World Cup in 2014 met both those criteria. The balls were eye-catching and hard to forget. Their pictures spread. But they would have been far from low-cost and they were also less creative than they appeared. Adidas had already been using giant shoes for its marketing, and even created a giant shoebox to use as a pop-up store. What used to be guerrilla—such as sticking a car to the side of a building or allowing a billboard ad to break the frame—is often now no more than a new take of an old idea by a professional copywriter using the budget of a multinational.

Hitting Back at the Guerrillas

The use of guerrilla marketing techniques by large companies and major advertising firms could be seen as a vindication of the practice, even if they do make it harder for smaller firms to surprise and stand out. But they have also generated a blowback. Wearers of shorts might not want their legs to be turned into advertising hoardings by clothing stores. Jeep’s use of fake parking spots that covered stairs and flowerbeds might have demonstrated the car’s ability to go anywhere but they could be seen as encouraging reckless parking.

In a 2020 paper in the Journal of Public Affairs, Therese Roux of the Tshwane University of Technology, cited a number of instances in which guerrilla marketing generated not just surprise but negative reactions. They included a campaign by Sony Ericsson in which fake tourists asked passers-by to photograph them using the company’s new phone. Vodafone had to apologize and make a charitable donation after they paid two men to run across a rugby pitch during an international game. The men were wearing nothing but the company logo painted on their bodies. A 2007 campaign to promote the Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force by placing LED placards across Boston led to a social panic. Police and passers-by mistook the placards for explosive devices, destroying some and arresting two of the people hired to implement the campaign.

What become known as The Great Mooninite Panic after the characters in the animated show could be regarded as one of the most successful examples of guerrilla marketing. It attracted publicity, winning the diffusion that’s one of the characteristics of guerrilla marketing. But like so much of what’s supposed to a tool used by small firms, it was actually a campaign run by an agency on behalf of a large corporation.

None of this to say that guerrilla marketing doesn’t have a use. Small firms, whether they’re start-up drinks companies or makers of kitchen tools, will always be interested in finding a way to win audiences by tapping their creativity rather than by emptying their limited marketing budgets. They’ll always want short cuts that can allow them to compete with their bigger, more established rivals. But as those rivals copy their most successful ideas, and supersize them with the help of advertising agencies and big spends, they’ll find that guerrilla marketing has to fight harder to surprise and be even more creative than the ideas of some of the world’s leading art directors.

Recent Posts

Recent Comments