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February 4, 2016
Marketing  |  11 min read

Cost-effective Guerrilla Marketing Strategies for Small Businesses

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Ben Snedeker

The term “guerrilla marketing” might sound ominous, but it’s not threatening. The term was coined by Jay Conrad Levinson in 1984; he was describing unconventional, cost-effective marketing strategies that small businesses around the world could use to get their brand noticed. The concept is to use non-traditional advertising activities to get your brand out on street level, disrupting pedestrian life enough to grab people’s attention.

"The soul and essence of guerrilla marketing [is] achieving conventional goals, such as profits and joy, with unconventional methods, such as investing energy instead of money," remarked Levinson. "Guerrilla marketing has been proven in action to work for small businesses around the world. It works because it’s simple to understand, easy to implement, and outrageously inexpensive."

Unlike big brands such as Nike or Target, the average small business has a tight marketing budget and is forced to find creative ways to reach the public. Guerrilla marketing ideas help bypass traditional ad spaces that are both highly competitive and expensive. However, because it's so effective, big brands have also used it to boost their own street cred. So, if you’re a business owner trying to build brand recognition on a budget, guerrilla marketing could very well be the thing you’re looking for.

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Examples of guerrilla marketing

Disrupt the landscape. Most guerrilla marketing campaigns work best in urban spaces with prevalent foot traffic or dense, slow-moving automobile traffic. Using creative marketing strategies for small business, you can add a shocking, whimsical, or beautiful change to a space that quickly gains the attention of passersby.

Let’s say you’re a dentist, and you make this clever poster to hang on a telephone pole:

poster on telephone pole.png 

It’s whimsical, and as people remove your business information, the toothy grin starts to look more and more like a hockey player’s beat-up grill, inviting even more curiosity.

The poster stands out and gets a look. It’s incorporated into the landscape, but the bold design demands our attention, causing the poster to stand out sharply. Thanks to smartphones, guerilla marketing campaigns can quickly take on a life of their own on social media, as well. In this case, the dentist that posted this won’t get much traction online, because the business details are too small to see from a distance. But the street value is enormous.

When guerilla marketers look to disrupt the landscape, they turn to graffiti and street artists, like Banksy, for inspiration. These artists transform the urban space with radical images that also convey their cause.

[tweet] Guerrilla marketing is about mesmerizing your audience with beauty or curiosity while delivering a strong message. <Tweet this [/tweet]

Of course, when most people think of the word “graffiti,” they think “illegal.” Frankly, that’s a very important thing to keep in mind. Check local laws before you make any disruptive advertisement, and be clear on the risks (more on the risks of guerilla marketing below).

Graffiti isn’t limited to spray paint—it refers to any kind of writing (or decoration) to a public space that’s not specifically sanctioned by the owner of the space. Temporary graffiti, and many other creative marketing installations can be done safely and legally (or at least can be done without criminal penalty; seek legal council on fees and risks for your proposed project before you invest time and energy into the campaign). Here are some creative, inexpensive guerrilla marketing ideas for temporary graffiti and other installations:

  • All the crochet enthusiasts out there have probably heard of “yarn bombing.” But for everyone else, it’s a simple idea: crochet a cozy on anything and everything, from trees to fire hydrants. It’s a colorful art form that can certainly turn heads. Just remember to include your brand in the work.

 Guerrilla marketing:

  • Perhaps the all-time best (i.e., simplest, safest, and cheapest) guerilla marketing campaign is the old standby: sidewalk chalk. If done right, it can be very catchy, and could even gain the attention of social media. Like Vapiano did below, you can use stencil and chalk rubbings to make a very professional-looking ad that leaps right off the sidewalk.

 Guerrilla marketing: sidewalk chalk ad

  • Know of a really dirty wall in your community? Or how about any given slab of sidewalk concrete? With a pressure hose and a stencil, you can powerwash your logo into stained cement. It will last longer than chalk, but isn’t permanent like paint.

 Guerrilla marketing: sidewalk business logo ad 

  • Project video onto a large outdoor wall. All you’ll need is a rented projector and a wall big enough to garner some attention. Of course, you’ll need to wait until nightfall to run your campaign, so make sure to target a spot that’s sure to get the night crowd.

 video on building ad.png

  • Of course, stickers make for a cool, urban statement and can be used in a variety of ways. Simple stickers of your logo can get you a lot of mileage. Put them up all over town, and make sure to put them in the places your target audience hangs out. Simple stickers are more likely to get lost on the crowd, but for the right brands, in the right places, they can work wonders. You can really get creative with customized stickers to make a bold statement. Take the example below: they created a sticker that turned a trash bin into a food container to highlight the fact that the homeless see trash bins as sources of food. Professionally designed stickers can make a radical statement for your brand.

 Guerrilla marketing: nutrition facts on trash can ad

Stir up the crowd

Audience participation cements your brand into the mind of your potential customers. While you can have great success by surprising them with creatively placed ads in their environment, you can up the ante on your impact by actually including your audience in the event. Here are some ideas:

  • Flash mob: A flash mob works because an unassuming group of street performers brazenly begin singing, dancing, or acting in a busy space, presumably out of the blue. The performance can startle the unassuming crowd, but they’ll quickly catch on. For example, in a crowded mall dining area, one person suddenly stands on her chair and begins singing a song. She’s joined by someone on the other side of the café, then another, and another, until a full-fledged chorus breaks out. Perhaps they remove their coats to reveal a tee shirt with your brand on it. Even if you and your employees aren’t into street performance, you can hire local drama students to do the performance for you. The key to a flash mob is the perception of spontaneity as well as a dramatic flair.
  • Create spaces that encourage your audience to participate, not just observe. For example, the train station “kissing point” by Labello lip balm provided a spot on the platform for travelers to kiss their loved ones goodbye. When your marketing strategy provides the opportunity for participants to engage, you also increase the probability that participants will take photos and share them on their social media channels, like Instagram, SnapChat, and Facebook. Include in your campaign a hashtag for people to use (in this case, #kissingpoint would have worked well) to add another level of participation.

 Guerrilla marketing: Labello lip balm train station ad

  • Gamify your guerrilla marketing: Use games or competitions not only to delight your audience, but to get them to go into your brick and mortar store, or to follow a promo code to get a special deal on your website. For example, Adidas ran a brilliant guerrilla marketing campaign to announce the grand opening of their new store by scattering blue ducks around a plaza. Each duck had a message on it saying that it had swum too far and needed help to be returned to their “home” (which was the new Adidas store) in exchange for a prize. The novelty of the campaign paired with the prize boosted traffic to their store as well as their opening-day sales.

The ups and downs of guerilla marketing

Perhaps the biggest advantage in guerrilla marketing is the freedom it gives you to think outside the box. The possibilities are as limitless as your creativity. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, which means that there’s always the risk your idea will flop. But, when the campaign works, it can garner for your brand a level of exposure you couldn’t get any other way. Just keep in mind that guerrilla marketing is a hands-on marketing tactic: what you save in budget, you pay for in your time and energy.

Of course, as we alluded earlier, not everyone thinks guerrilla marketing is great. You have some serious factors to consider:

  • Your brand is front and center. Any negative perception of the campaign will directly reflect on your brand. Don’t ever forget that.
  • Remember that it’s called “guerrilla” for a reason. It’s a very edgy marketing tactic, and it carries with it some level of risk:
    • You may need permits to do what you want to do or the property owner’s permission. Skip this step and you could get in trouble. Then again, lots of guerrilla marketers take that risk.
    • Some guerrilla marketers have set up interactive installations that seem really exciting and grab a lot of attention (like superimposing a slide on a subway staircase so commuters can rush to their train). Sounds great until someone gets hurt. Nobody wants a lawsuit.
    • Speaking of safety: Never set up shop in a location that could impede safety crews from doing their job. Like, don’t cover a fire hydrant, block an emergency exit, etc.
    • Some risks can be known (like dressing girls in orange dresses to advertise a beer brand at a FIFA event in South Africa that banned advertising from the stands), and some risks cannot be known (like a Lite-Brite advertisement on an overpass that gets blown up by a Boston bomb squad).
    • You have to take responsibility for your actions. If you go the guerilla route, you have to take risks, but you also must be responsible for them.

Business is about risk. It’s risk that makes an investment lucrative. It’s the same principle for guerrilla marketing. It’s the risk—the audacity—that makes these kinds of tactics so appealing to the crowds. It’s what makes people turn their heads and take notice. You make the call. 


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