Guerrillas In The Midst: Non-Trad Efforts Take Center Stage

With middle-of-the-mainstream brands like MTV and Tylenol pegged to participate, Thursday morning's panel discussion on non-traditional marketing promised to be as edgy and alternative as a Dave Matthews Band concert. But the get-together, presented by the New York American Marketing Association and moderated by New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott, instead provided a compelling look at the challenges faced by big-name marketers attempting to come across as credible and clever in the eyes of advertising-saturated consumers.

Dubbed "Rise of the Jungle: Guerrilla Marketing Goes Mainstream," the program surveyed a handful of recent nontraditional campaigns conducted by major brands, including Toyota's attempt to lure younger consumers to its Scion model and the Sony Ericsson program that spurred a finger-wagging piece on "60 Minutes." The overarching conclusion: such brands must tread very carefully when developing nontraditional programs, or risk looking even more square and outmoded than they did in the first place.



"It calls for a completely different approach," noted Brian Bolain, national sales promotions manager for Toyota's Scion, "and change is really hard."

The major problem is that the younger audiences targeted by most guerrilla marketing programs seem almost genetically predisposed to distrust established brands. As a result, marketers have inevitably been forced to rejigger their creative thinking, and some of the results have been flat-out ugly. "You can't say you're cool--you have to show it," emphasized Renegade Marketing Group president and co-founder Drew Neisser, who has counted Panasonic, Citibank, and IBM as clients.

A look at the infamous Sony Ericsson campaign provided the morning's most illuminating discussion. That program, unleashed in the summer of 2002, saw actors posing as tourists ask legit tourists (no word if they were identified by the bulge of their fanny-packs) to snap a picture using a then-novel camera phone. Not surprisingly, Jon Maron, Sony Ericsson's marketing communications director at the time, defended his former company's tactics. Noting that the real tourists were not being asked to buy anything, he put himself in the subject's shoes and asked rhetorically: "Explain to me why this is bad for me."

Of the panelists, only Neisser expressed reservations with the Sony Ericsson program. "I have a real issue with stealth marketing," he said. "We have to find a way to get consumers involved without having to trick them... If you have to deceive consumers to get them involved, that's dishonest." Maron responded by noting that the actors offered to send the bona fide tourists more information about the camera phones, which ostensibly should have tipped them off that they were being marketed to. "Revere riding into Massachusetts-that was guerrilla marketing," he added later.

Much of the discussion was loosely centered around an informal survey attendees were asked to fill out when they registered. Not surprisingly, 85 percent said they believe that guerrilla marketing is a legitimate marketing discipline--and one that has become increasingly important in the current era of media saturation. "Let's face it: traditional media is getting harder and harder to rationalize," Neisser said. Of the 175 or so attendees, a mix of advertising/media agency types and PR folk, 53 percent said their marketing communications include nontraditional elements.

Which isn't to suggest that marketers are 100 percent sold on guerrilla or grassroots marketing. All five of the panelists stressed that guerrilla marketing must be complemented by other disciplines, usually a concurrent PR push. "We can't afford to go out and talk to everyone individually," Neisser noted. And even if companies could, it might not be good for business.

Bolain explained that Toyota's 1,200 dealerships are the company's first-line customers. "If they don't see advertising for our products, they flip out."

The panelists also expressed some reservations about measuring the effectiveness of such programs. Attendees agreed, with 46 percent saying that guerrilla marketing programs are less measurable than traditional efforts.

Conceding that she "live[s] in a highly metric world," McNeil Consumer & Specialty Pharmaceuticals Vice President, Marketing Ashley McEvoy said that her team was able to measure changes in attitude in the wake of its program to introduce Tylenol to a younger audience. "But you're not going to see a sale right away," she added quickly.

Maron noted that guerrilla marketing programs can often be judged by a spike in Web site hits, while Bolain pointed to a sharp jump in non-sanctioned Scion chat rooms and sites. "How do you measure that? I don't know, but it's good to know they're out there," he said.

Panelists also seemed to disagree on exactly what constitutes guerrilla marketing--whether it encompasses a well-defined set of activities or is merely used as a blanket term for anything that feels like an ad but doesn't resemble a television commercial. The key element, all agreed after some bickering, was--surprise, surprise--creativity. "Anyone can hand out a flier. The question is how you do it in a creative way," said Todd Apmann, director of grassroots marketing, MTV and MTV2.

Next story loading loading..