What is guerrilla marketing?

Guerrilla marketing involves unconventional or interactive campaigns that take consumers by surprise and typically attract social media attention for being so unexpected.

These tactics allow businesses to repurpose their consumers’ environment to include their brand and are particularly attractive to small businesses looking for greater reach and impact at a lower cost than traditional marketing.

This type of marketing can take many forms, including:

  • publicity stunts (e.g. flash mobs or world record attempts);
  • brand installations (e.g. giant statues of a product in prominent public places);
  • transformation of everyday items into advertisements (e.g. park benches or dressing up statues in brand clothing);
  • projection or digital billboard advertising;
  • graffiti or ‘reverse graffiti’ (e.g. cleaning graffiti/grime off walls to display a particular pattern, image or word);
  • ‘wild posting’ (e.g. putting up posters in multiple densely populated locations);
  • pop-up stores and events; and
  • ‘geofencing’, where a mobile device’s GPS is used to offer exclusive content and experiences when the consumer is in a specific location, often in conjunction with an event (e.g. via a Snapchat filter or Instagram stories).

A well-engineered guerrilla marketing campaign will drive consumer engagement, organic social media posts and may even take on a life of its own by going ‘viral’.

The risks of guerrilla marketing

Guerrilla marketing has the potential to be highly disruptive and, when used without permission or authorisation from the relevant local authorities or property owners, poses legal and reputational risk that could negatively impact a business’s brand. These include:

  • Fines – businesses can be fined for graffiti, handing out flyers, putting up posters or organising unauthorised events;
  • Imprisonment – employees or agents of a business that implement guerrilla marketing may be at risk of imprisonment (i.e. streakers painted with brand names or logos at a football game);
  • Litigation – a business may be sued by private property owners (i.e. for using their building for a projected billboard advertisement);
  • Consumer laws – if the marketing materials are not sufficiently clear and accurate, they may be found to be misleading and deceptive under the Australian Consumer Law;
  • Reputation – a stunt gone wrong (such as a bomb scare set off by an obscure brand installation, or a disruption to a basketball game that ruins a potentially game-winning shot) can have severe reputational repercussions for a brand and can alienate the target audience; and
  • Safety – some campaigns may put public safety at risk or cause damage to the environment, leading to reputational damage and legal implications (i.e. an installation may fall over and injure a person, or may contain lots of glitter that then blows over the city, polluting waterways and parks).

Viral marketing

Viral marketing is a strategy businesses use to generate buzz about a guerrilla marketing campaign and encourage consumers to pass on a marketing message to their online network, with potential for exponential growth and widespread influence without significant financial outlay.

However, viral marketing can be risky, and negative messages about a brand can spread just as quickly as positives ones. Once a post goes viral, it can be very difficult (if not impossible) to control, and the message may be distorted or the brand image transformed by how consumers portray the brand when it is shared to their networks. Businesses should make every effort to ensure that the marketing message is clear so that it cannot be easily misunderstood or altered by others.

Businesses should also ensure that their trade marks are registered and sufficiently protected in all countries in which they operate, or intend to operate, as a viral post will be shared rapidly around the world, leaving a brand open to trade mark pirates if adequate protection is not sought at the outset.

Further, businesses should ensure that the post/video complies with the law and does not infringe third party intellectual property rights (i.e. by obtaining music licenses and ensuring no third party copyright or trade mark is included in the post without authorisation).

Finally, businesses should be aware of their obligations when it comes to posts made to their social media pages. Businesses have a responsibility to monitor content on the social media accounts under their control to ensure it does not contravene the law, including by being misleading or deceptive, and should not delete negative reviews as this may mislead consumers about the general body of reviews for a product or service.

Planning a guerrilla marketing campaign

A successful guerrilla marketing campaign should be well-researched and planned. Businesses should:

  • specifically target the campaign for a particular audience and be consistent with the brand’s message. The campaign should complement other brand marketing, both online and in traditional media.
  • get permissions from the relevant authorities, councils, private property owners, and intellectual property rights holders. Depending on their risk tolerance, some businesses may choose to accept the risk that their campaign will breach the law due to the potential for significant reward. However, businesses operating in highly regulated industries (i.e. financial services or insurance) need to take particular care when considering the risks involved in a guerrilla marketing campaign.
  • consider unseen variables, including weather, noise, theft, graffiti, security concerns, disruptive social or political events, and local culture/customs, and how these may affect a consumer’s experience of the campaign.
  • ensure that the relevant trade mark protections related to the campaign are in place worldwide.
  • consider the safety and environmental impact of the campaign, i.e. ensuring it is animal and eco-friendly, to avoid protests, fines, and/or brand damage.