Guerilla marketing: Holiday marketing goes rogue

7 min read
Quentin Aisbett

UPDATE: This guerilla marketing post was originally published on 20 November 2018 and updated on 23 November 2020 and 22 November 2021.

During the holidays, people step away from their daily routines, so retailers can't rely on traditional marketing tactics like radio ads and flyers to get their attention. This is where guerilla marketing is a great play.

Christmas marketing often requires a different approach.

Guerilla marketing is an advertising strategy that relies on ingenuity rather than lots of cash to get attention. It enables even small startups to cut through the demands on customers’ attention during the weeks leading up to Christmas and New Year's.

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What is guerilla marketing?

Subway recently served up a prime example of guerilla marketing in an ad that made fun of the submarine spat between the French and the Australian governments.

Subway trolling france ad

The full-page ad, which appeared in Melbourne-based newspaper, The Age, features a photo of a subway sandwich with the headline, "Non-nuclear powered $90 billion cheaper subs."

Guerilla marketing disrupts consumers in their daily routines by presenting them with unconventional methods of brand interaction, says G2 Crowd. A clever marketer at Subway saw the pun and used it to break through the clutter.

There are varying tactics used in guerilla marketing, from hijacking events to public displays such as flash mobs. The success of these types of activities depends on a number of factors, but ultimately they need to be (as Seth Godin puts it) ‘remarkable.’

This is particularly important in the lead-up to (and during) the Christmas season, when there can be many competing demands for consumers’ attention.

5 types of guerilla marketing and examples

You don’t need a ton of money to get the attention of potential customers. Whatever you choose to do, and at whatever scale you do it, remember that the goal is to surprise and delight.

1. Public installations and street art

Mini Cooper Guerilla Marketing Amsterdam

Street art is widely used in guerilla marketing because it has an immediate impact. The aim of a public installation (i.e. a temporary object installed in a public space) can be varied, but ultimately you want it to be either entertaining or to have some utility value. It’s important to note that installations don’t scale all that well, so you want to compel people to share their experience of it on social media.

Mini Cooper promoted their iconic cars by leaving car-sized cardboard boxes around Amsterdam shortly after Christmas one year. Meant to simulate the discarded remains of a Christmas gift that has been opened, the campaign used size to stop traffic and create a buzz. Which is, of course, the whole idea.

You don't need to have a budget as big as BMW's to make this work for a small venture. You could, for example, install a special window display at the front of your store or create a design that lives on the windows but can be washed off post-Christmas.

Or you could chalk signs on nearby sidewalks to get attention and lure people to your store. Learn how to make your own street stencil here.

Be creative and follow the trends. Photo booths were once effective, but they’re not so much now. Also aim to ensure your installation aligns with your brand.

2. Pop-up shops

You don’t always need to be in retail to see the benefits of opening up a pop-up shop. If you can find the right location that will see enough foot traffic, then you have an opportunity to engage your audience for a period of time.

Remember, guerilla marketing is about achieving cut-through.

So your pop-up shop needs to stand out and provide an experience that will get people talking.

Examples: In 2016, eBay hosted a two-day pop-up shop in London billed as the “world's first emotionally powered shop.” Using a screen and a camera, eBay suggests the presents shoppers should buy based on their facial reaction to 12 images presented to them.

Whilst not a traditional pop-up shop, software company Citymapper launched a pop-up bus in Central London fitted out with USB charging points and screens showing people when and where to get off.

3. User-generated content

Getting people to engage is the key with guerilla marketing. And if you can get potential customers to create content for you, then you have something truly irresistible.

But beware. You need to know your audience and what interests they have. If you fail to get your audience to engage, your campaign will ultimately flop. So this can be a high-risk/high-reward tactic.

Example: In 2020, Oreo tapped into its positive and playful brand identity by calling on users to #stayhomestayplayful in a campaign that appeared on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. People submitted home videos of themselves that helped remind viewers everywhere happiness can be found in even the hardest of times.

4. Create an online app

Not all guerilla marketing tactics need to be offline. After all, if there’s one thing we can be certain about in terms of people’s behaviour during the Christmas season, it’s that they will still have their phones in their pockets and will be spending time online.

Example: Office Depot’s Elf Yourself campaign is a Christmas favourite. This app lets anyone superimpose their faces (and those of their mates) on dancing elves. You just upload pics from Facebook or your camera, choose a dance and the app automatically generates a custom Elf Yourself video that you can share on Facebook, Youtube and email. Just a bit of fun really ... the kind no one can resist.

5. Newsjacking

David Meerman-Scott popularised the term ‘newsjacking’ and he defines it as “the art and science of injecting your ideas into a breaking news story so you and your ideas get noticed.”

When you know an event is happening ahead of time, you might be able to identify an opportunity to capitalise on it.

Here’s how it works:

The first step is to watch the news for anything that might be relevant to your business. Set up Google News alerts that ping you when certain keywords are mentioned.

For example, perhaps you sell toys and could comment on the Christmas traffic to your store compared with previous years. Or maybe you see a forecast of unusually cold temps — suggest to reporters that it’s a harbinger of a secret pre-Christmas visit from Santa (then stage an in-store visit).

Once you see something you can use, send out a press release to local news outlets offering yourself as a source of information relevant to the story. You could use a service such as Get the Word Out to handle this or do it yourself.

You can also cold-pitch reporters already writing about something relevant to your business by emailing them directly to offer an interview, a video or other information that would strengthen their reporting of the story.

If done well, this tactic gains you media coverage on a shoestring budget. Dig into more details here.

Example: When brewer Carlton Draught learned that all AFL coaches would be meeting at the CEO’s house for their annual dinner and it would receive TV coverage, they sent brand ambassador and former AFL great Jonathan Brown over to deliver a gift. The gift was a pallet of Carlton Draught. The brand received plenty of news coverage; the value of the media coverage far outweighed the cost of the gift.

Guerilla marketing and your Christmas plans

As you can see, guerilla marketing is a very different approach than your traditional marketing or even most online advertising methods. It takes creativity and ingenuity (and in Oreo’s Super Bowl “you can still dunk it in the dark” tweet, it requires a level of thinking on your feet).

When you’re planning your Christmas marketing campaigns, consider putting the planning processes you’ve learned aside. Instead, start really looking at the day-to-day lives of your audience during the holidays. Then look for ways to disrupt and enrich them.

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