The Complete Guide to Guerrilla Marketing for Small Business

When you’re getting your business started, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by how costly and complicated it can be to get and keep the attention of new customers. As advertising and technology get smarter, so do consumers. People are constantly bombarded from all sides by different forms of advertising, making it harder for your message to just stand out. It can feel like a waste to spend money on an ad that will probably be ignored—especially when you need to make the most of every marketing dollar.

Modern marketing research shows that the sales funnel is evolving and customers expect a more personalized experience than ever. Instead of being “sold to,” customers will only engage with marketing that’s either helpful or genuinely entertaining. Brands can no longer rely on bombarding their potential customers with messaging: they have to earn the customer’s interest.

Guerrilla marketing is a way of growing brand awareness that aims to achieve this goal by using creativity and ingenuity instead of a huge ad spend to garner interest from consumers. With the right guerrilla marketing strategies, you can win big without spending big. 

Let’s dig into exactly what guerrilla marketing is, how other brands have used it successfully, and how small business owners might employ these tactics for their own guerrilla marketing plans.

6 Best Guerrilla Marketing Tactics You’ll Be Remembered For from Fundera

What Is Guerrilla Marketing?

Don’t let the name startle you. While the term “guerrilla marketing” evolved from guerrilla warfare, the similarities between the two have nothing to do with combat. Instead, guerrilla marketing focuses on creative, low-budget, and attention-grabbing techniques to surprise potential customers and grab their interest for the purpose of increased sales and brand awareness.

Sounds perfect, right?

But successfully pulling off a guerrilla marketing plan requires the right mix of surprise, delight, and a unique twist. Let’s take a look at several examples of brands that’ve implemented these strategies successfully in order to study the best qualities of winning guerrilla marketing plans.

Guerrilla Marketing Examples

1. Public Art, Graffiti, and Urban Art

Graffiti has come a long way since its Philadelphia beginnings in the late ’60s.[1] What used to be a rebellious way for urban youth to gain attention or mark territory has now grown into a full-fledged movement as artists like Shepard Fairey and Banksy earn international fame and recognition with their socially and politically charged messages.

In 2008, the Obama presidential campaign recognized the power of street art to grab the attention of young voters. Shepard Fairey had already started to gain attention with his Andre the Giant/Obey art when Barack Obama’s message captured his interest. Fairey’s original portrait of President Obama read “Progress,” but he changed it to “Hope” when the campaign reached out to commission the piece as a fundraising tool. This a great example of sharing momentum to promote your message.

If you’re a little wary of the risk factor associated with true graffiti art, consider reverse-graffiti—a process that uses cleaning products to create an image by removing dirt and debris from the walls or sidewalk to display an image.

In a genius low-cost move, Green Works created a 140-foot mural in a San Francisco underpass using their plant-derived, eco-friendly cleaning products to remove the accumulated grime from the city. That means no need to buy advertising space, and it’s certainly not a crime to clean public space!

Sidewalk chalk is another great guerrilla marketing option for temporary public art. Writing your website, company name, or slogan on the sidewalks of an industry event is a cheap and easy way to grab free attention. This is also a fun way to lead people to a business that might be slightly off the beaten path, or just guide people to a sale or grand opening.

2. Unique Storefront Displays

Don’t think that a street art approach means you’ll have to be sneaking around at night with stencils, paints, posters, and glue. For a less stealthy approach, you can use your storefront or other space on your building to display a clever image. Having an artist paint a mural on your building or designing a unique window display is a great opportunity to catch the eye of foot traffic and stand out to local customers.

If making your businesses location an eye-catching piece of art appeals to you, consider hiring a local artist to paint your name on the building instead of the more traditional signage. You don’t have to stop at just your name: using more building space is just more opportunity to pique the interest of passersby. You’ll stand out from your neighbors and win nearby fans by supporting local art.

3. Stickers Out in the Wild

Creative street art doesn’t have to stay close to home. If you don’t have a storefront or want to look beyond foot traffic to earn new patrons, enhancing the everyday fixtures of life can have a big impact. Stickers are less risky than paint, but more versatile than traditional ad placements. They can be designed in all different shapes and sizes, even on the tightest budget, and are good for modifying an existing message.

In the wake of Banksy’s popularity and impact, Ikea paid street artists to graffiti their existing ads and placed similarly styled ads in unconventional places. Ikea’s bright, modern, reasonably priced furniture makes young people a big part of their target market. Using the popularity of stenciled street art is a perfect fit to catch the eye of the right demographic.

If you like the idea of using the streets and sidewalks as fun advertising space—but aren’t sold on the permanence of spray paint—then carefully placed decals and stickers might be just the thing for you. Procter and Gamble used the white stripes of crosswalks to remind pedestrians of Mr. Clean’s power over grit. This wins points for reversibility, humor, and defying language barriers.

Another good use of strategically placed images is Folgers’ steaming cup of coffee. Why let that steam go to waste when it can sell some coffee? Keeping your message simple and visually based helps to convey it to a diverse audience.

If you’re thinking of using guerrilla marketing on a smaller scale, consider smaller decals strategically placed for a captive audience. Guinness narrowed in on their exact audience by wrapping small and simple stickers around the ends of pool cues. Even a simple strategy of having your logo stickers visible in places your target customers frequent can increase brand recognition. Pixar knew that their target audience has a lower line of vision, so they put their mouse hole flyers closer to the ground where children were more likely to spot them.

The Salvation Army got really creative with their “This Ad Cost Nothing Campaign” and canvassed the northeastern U.S. with their free ads.[2] Stamps in pizza boxes, on coffee cup sleeves, chalk on walls and sidewalks, even dirty windshields served as perfect advertising space to bring in new donations.

4. Performance-Based Guerrilla Marketing

Even with safe and reversible options, maybe (literally) making your mark through public art doesn’t really interest you. If that’s the case, consider integrating public performances into your guerrilla marketing plan. Performances take a lot of time to plan, but can be repeated to maximize exposure. Documenting performances and sharing them over social media will also help you expand the reach of your message beyond your immediate audience.

The term “flash mob” could also sound a bit menacing, but it’s actually nothing to be afraid of. In a nutshell, a flash mob is a group of people gathering suddenly in public to do an unusual act or performance, and then quickly disperse. They should be quick, attention grabbing, and fun. Flash mobs can be very complex, too, like T-Mobile’s dance at a train station. Dozens of dancers assembled and performed choreography for a few minutes to a fun mash-up soundtrack, then quickly dispersed. This particular performance was not only well-planned and rehearsed, but also very well-documented to reach a wider internet audience.

A step down in complexity but not in impact is the famous Grand Central Freeze organized by comedian Charlie Todd and Improv Everywhere. In this stunt, more than 200 voluntary participants froze in place at the same time while walking through Grand Central Station, for five minutes. Again, this was well documented with video from several angles, broadening the audience beyond passing commuters.

While at the opposite ends of the scale in complexity of performance, both do require a lot of people and planning. Molo Nation took a smaller scale plan to the streets with their Jedi Battle Prank. The idea was equally simple and delightful: get a group of people to don Star Wars Costumes and challenge pedestrians to lightsaber battles. This guerrilla marketing performance engaged passersby to draw attention to a local fitness business.

Notice that all of these performances, regardless of complexity, were filmed and shared online to extend the reach of the guerrilla marketing campaign. We really can’t say this enough—if you execute a guerrilla marketing plan but only a few people see it, you’re severely limiting the reach of your campaign!

5. Sabotage!

Put away your cat-burglar uniform, folks… There will be no breaking and entering here.

In guerrilla marketing terms, sabotage is when a brand uses momentum, popularity, or the message of a competing brand to draw attention to their own campaign.

Marc Benioff, CEO and co-founder of Salesforce, has earned himself quite the reputation for using sabotage as a guerrilla marketing technique.[3] At competitor Siebel Systems’ annual conference, Benioff rented all of the taxis from the closest airport, using the 45-minute ride to pitch Salesforce before their rivals could even get guests checked in![3] Not only did this anger and frazzle his competition, journalists couldn’t resist writing about this bold stunt. Benioff let Siebel spend the energy and money of gathering the industry together, then just borrowed the audience for a bit.

Gett, a ride sharing app, capitalized upon the common complaints around Uber’s surge pricing with their new ad campaign to poach some already savvy customers. Uber has done a lot of the heavy lifting of building a customer base for their ride sharing app—Gett simply just needed to highlight the benefits of their competing service.

Brewing giant New Castle combined the sabotage concept with more traditional outdoor marketing through hilarious hilarious billboard placements that competitor Stella Artois could not have seen coming.

The notable connection between all these sabotage campaigns is the use of humor and focus on the saboteur’s own products. This guerrilla marketing tactic isn’t just about bashing the competition. The savviest saboteur will always bring the message back to the superiority of their own product.

6. Web Campaigns

So far we’ve focused on live, physical guerrilla marketing campaigns that are documented and shared online—but don’t underestimate the power of campaigns that are born and live on the internet. Web campaigns offer huge potential for a wide impact at a very low cost.

The student filmmakers that made “The Blair Witch Project” did so on a $50,000 budget—about the equivalent of the craft services budget for a major Marvel action movie.

To create this level of buzz for such a low budget movie, the filmmakers created a website for the film documenting the legend of the Blair Witch. They wisely focused on college-aged audiences and only showed ads on college campuses. On IMDB, the actors were listed as “Missing, Presumed Dead” prior to the film’s release. To further the authenticity of the story, “Missing” fliers were passed out around college campuses for the three film stars, and the filmmakers created and encouraged rumors about the “facts” surrounding the case on websites and message boards.

Even with such a small investment, “The Blair Witch Project” went on to gross $250 million worldwide—earning $1.5 million on only 27 screens opening weekend. That’s the very definition of guerrilla marketing success!

The Dollar Shave Club took a counter approach to brand name appeal with their wildly successful YouTube commercial. Founder Michael Dubin used his improv background from studying at New York City’s famed Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre to appeal to men tired of the ever-rising prices of name brand razor blades. It worked. Orders started rolling in and the Dollar Shave Club eventually expanded their line into men’s bath products and women’s essentials as well.

The common thread of successful web-based guerrilla marketing campaigns lies in the brand’s ability to control the content. With Instagram and Twitter commanding a huge influence on buyers, it can be very tempting to try to generate some buzz by creating a fun new hashtag. But be very careful when you are counting on the Twitter-verse to follow the spirit of your intent: there are countless examples of hashtag campaigns being hijacked or just hilariously and disastrously misinterpreted. Before launching any web-based campaign, be sure to test it out with a smaller focus group to check for any misunderstandings you may have missed.

7 Guerrilla Marketing Tactics

Now that your mind is abuzz with all kinds of great guerrilla marketing ideas you can adapt to your business, there are a few guidelines worth keeping in mind when you launch your campaign. After all, while you want to stand out, you don’t want to be polarizing or negative. Your aim is to gain positive favor, so avoid ideas that could scare your audience or put them on the defense.

1. Catch Them Off Guard…

In today’s world of screen-based technology, consumers have developed an immunity against being advertised to. We automatically tune out, change channels, or mute devices when commercials come on. Closing pop-up windows and sidebars has become so automatic, we don’t even see things that are relevant.

Finding a way to get your message to a consumer when they’re not on high alert to reflexively ignore or shut out advertising is an important part of any guerrilla marketing approach. This is why street art, flash mobs, product modifications, and even simple stickers can be so effective.

2. …But Avoid Scary Associations

In the fall of 2007, Turner Broadcasting placed several blinking robot machines around Boston to promote the new season of their show, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and the much-loved Mooninite characters on the show. Unfortunately, this guerrilla marketing plan turned out to be too vague, and many passers-by mistook the flashy machines for potential terrorist threats. This led public officials to shut down mass transit and call in the bomb squad for investigation. 

Not quite the positive buzz marketers were looking for!

Lesson learned: Before launching any guerrilla marketing campaign, test it out with a few people who have little to no knowledge of the product—or at least try to think of it from their perspective. If your plan risks causing genuine public concern, look for ways to either alter the plan or swiftly relieve the concerns of your audience.

3. Creativity Is Key

Once you catch customers’ attention, you’d better have something to say that will hold their interest. Writing “Our widgets are the best widgets” on the side of a building won’t do you much good. Your message needs to be as unique as your delivery.

4. Don’t Annoy Your Audience

Organizing a water fight to advertise your jet ski rentals? Great idea! Soaking innocent bystanders on their walk to work? Not so much.

Take pains to make sure that audience participation in your guerrilla marketing event is voluntary and that the public won’t be inconvenienced by your plan. You’re doing this to create new customers, not enemies.

5. Make Sure Displays Are Temporary

If your guerrilla marketing plan involves any type of public art, make sure that your work is easily reversed. Reverse graffiti, chalk spray, hydrophobic spray, and stickers are great options to make your mark—just not forever.

And even when choosing a non-permanent art option, be sure to test your method in an approved space first. IBM’s “Peace, Love & Linux” chalk stencils turned out to be much harder to remove than anticipated, costing the company tens of thousands of dollars in fines and clean up fees. Costing the city or a building owner time and money to fix their property is not the brand message you want to send.

6. Stay on Brand

You definitely want to be creative, but you also don’t want to create an image of something you aren’t. Staying on brand is important, so that when your newly-interested customers finds you, they’re not disappointed or baffled by the connection to your campaign.

7. Share, Share, Share!

No matter how creative and exciting your guerrilla marketing plan is, it can only be effective if your potential customers actually get to see it. So make sure to document your plan—not just the final product, but also the process of putting it together. Then plan to share those nuggets in the lead up, during your campaign, and after your launch in order to spread the reach of your stunt as far as possible.

Trying Guerrilla Marketing for Your Business

Are you inspired to create a guerrilla marketing plan for your own business? We hope that the examples of the brands we’ve shared—along with a few guidelines to direct your plan—will help you to gain brand awareness, delight your customers, and ultimately achieve your sales goals, all on a small business friendly budget.

Article Sources:

  1. “‘The History of American Graffiti:’ From Subway Car to Gallery
  2. “The Salvation Army: This Ad Costs Nothing
  3. “Our Favorite Crazy Stunts From Salesforce Leader Marc Benioff
Founding Editor and VP at Fundera at Fundera

Meredith Wood

Meredith Wood is the founding editor of the Fundera Ledger and a vice president at Fundera. 

Meredith launched the Fundera Ledger in 2014. She has specialized in financial advice for small business owners for almost a decade. Meredith is frequently sought out for her expertise in small business lending and financial management.

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