December 8th, 2008

Herd on the Street: Tales of Guerrilla Marketing

By Brandweek Staff

Brandweek's 2008 roundup of some of the most inventive guerrilla stunts of the past year

Getting the attention of passers-by in New York’s Times Square is about as easy as finding a job at Citigroup these days.

Vying for the attention of the estimated 35 million people who shove their way around 42nd and Broadway each year are fishbowl TV studios, Broadway theaters, multiplexes, and hundreds of stores and restaurants. A jungle of electric signs draw eyeballs above the storefronts with their cascading neon and dizzying video wallpaper, much of it wrapped around entire buildings. The new Walgreens sign alone is 30 stories tall and hypnotizes pedestrians with the 12 million LEDs that is run by 20 computers.

So what were the chances that a dude carving pumpkins was going to get more than a few eyeballs?

On Halloween, Scholastic Media ventured it anyway. In an effort to promote its first interactive console game, Goosebumps HorrorLand, the publisher and its marketing partner, Interference Inc., set up elementary schoolteacher Stephen Clarke in the center of the Square beside a ton of the big orange squashes to see if he could break his own Guinness Book record for carving. (He did—knifing grimaces into 50 pumpkins in one hour.)

Despite the myriad visual competition to his event, Interference founder Sam Ewen was still surprised at its impact. “The crowd sat there for 20 minutes,” he said, realizing that getting a New Yorker to stop for more than five seconds is sort of a big deal—and Ewen’s people counted roughly 3,200 who did. Not only that, he said, “They were smiling.”

Americans aren’t doing much of that these days, which is why the Scholastic stunt has a lot to say about the state of guerrilla marketing right now. With a recession all but upon us and the average passer-by more distracted than ever—either with financial worries or simply with the digital device he’s carrying—the guerrilla tactician has to do more than startle with the traditional craziness. “People are looking for escapes and ways out,” Ewen said. “Brands [have to] give people something else to think about.”

“As a country, we’re pissed off with everybody who was greedy,” said Bonnie Carlson, president of the Assn. for Integrated Marketing. Guerrilla marketing that provides what Carlson calls “a positive emotional experience,” is what’s needed. “The economy has dominated the attention spectrum,” Ewen added. “Anything that’s an escape and has a positive feel to it is a good thing.”

The rotten economy isn’t the only challenge facing the guerrilla practitioner right now. Apple has sold 6.89 million iPhones and 11.05 million iPods in just the third quarter alone, so the average pedestrian has a lot more to do with his attention than let his eyes wander lazily down the sidewalk.

According to Drew Neisser, CEO of Renegade Marketing in New York, it’s pushing guerrilla marketers to opt not just for what’s surprising, but what’s participatory and engaging. Today, Neisser said, “Guerrilla marketing has to be more than disruptive. It has to be appealing enough that someone in a walking cocoon actually wants to stop and engage.” For example, this year Renegade staged the “Fashion Coast Guard” for Nautica, in which brand reps “rescued” 40,000 “fashion shipwrecks” by giving them coupons for Nautica threads on the streets of Atlanta, and Charlotte and Durham, N.C.

Brandweek’s 2008 roundup of some of the most inventive guerrilla stunts of the past year has taken us far from the streets of the U.S., however. As the profiles here prove, some of guerrilla’s best ideas aren’t even on our continent. They’re not always what you’d call positive and optimistic, either. But engaging? Check.

And that—recession or no recession—will always be the point.

—Robert Klara

Need a Lift?
A subway station is one of those in-between places where the main object is to leave as soon as possible. For most people, it’s the exact opposite of a destination. More likely, it’s an obstacle to a destination.

So, juxtaposing those environs for a real destination—as in, a vacation one, and not your office—is a considerable accomplishment, and if the impact of a recent underground ambient campaign is any guide, the marketer pulled off this black-diamond of a challenge like Picabo Street.

Picture this: You’re oot and aboot in the Toronto subway, and decide to take a seat in the station. No sooner is the load off your feet that you find yourself the centerpiece of a wintry tableau. Your bench is actually a ski-lift chair; the wall behind you, a glorious vista of the Alberta Rockies. Now, look down: Who put those skis on your feet?

It was Travel Alberta International, using ordinary bench seating and some clever photo wraps to put commuters into a momentary paradise (the Great White North version) between February and March. Eight stations featured the installations, but apparently eight was enough: Visits to jumped 138 percent in the period.

“Our challenge is to figure out ways to break through that aren’t super-obtrusive and offensive,” explained Jennifer Cioffi, chief strategy officer of Venture Communications in Calgary, the shop that created the ambient campaign.

And it was all, uh, downhill from there. TAI, impressed with the response, has commissioned Venture to do another effort this winter that takes the concept a bit further. Instead of just a chair, entire subway stations will be transformed into skiing wonderlands. No word on where the bunny slope is going to go.

—Todd Wasserman

Training Day
On most days, the six-mile Portoliner Monorail on Japan’s island city of Kobe is packed full of people. But between April 14 and May 8, the tiny elevated trains were packed with something else: decorating ideas for people’s living rooms.

To commemorate the opening of its new Port Island store, home-furnishings chain Ikea took over an entire train, redecorating the cars with couches, curtains and wallpaper. Many items bore actual sales tags complete with names and prices, so if a passenger saw a color or style she liked, she could easily order it at the store or online.

“The train design showed a unique way to live in an Ikea décor of comfort and everyday living,” said a company rep. More to the point, said John Margolis, co-author of Guerrilla Marketing for Dummies, it was guerrilla in its “purest form:” The Swedish chain was “putting the products out there, letting customers touch and feel the brand. Short of going into the stores, this literally gives consumers a chance to sit on the couch.”

Margolis added that Ikea’s choice of the diminutive train cars underscored the chain’s positioning of being the brand of choice for decorating tiny living spaces. “They’re showing how to maximize a small space through the use of [decorative] materials,” he said.

Ikea’s Japanese marketers could not be reached for comment, so there’s no telling what kind of ROI the store got from (much less what it paid for) the three-week stint, but according to Chicago-based freelance designer and event marketer Steve Dennis, this kind of guerrilla installation stands to be far more successful in a socially demure atmosphere like the one in Japan. “In New York City, an Ikea train would be torn up, which would misrepresent the brand,” he said. Still, Dennis added, “I think an Ikea-themed bus or water taxi would work here.” Hmmmm . . . Note to headquarters.

—Robert Klara

What a Dive
You might think the triathletes who come to Hawaii for the Ironman World Championships power up with wheatgrass protein shakes, but the truth is they drink coffee. Lots of it.

The 1,700-plus contestants, who descended upon this paradise for one of the most grueling physical competitions known to man, tend to train 20 hours a week. “To keep their energy up, they need their coffee,” said Albert Boyce, owner of Coffees of Hawaii. “Actually, they need our coffee.”

Or so Boyce thought as he stood on the island of Molokai (where his brand is headquartered) eyeing neighboring Kailua-Kona, where the competition is held every October. But Boyce had a problem. Much as he wanted to advertise his brand, World Triathalon Corp. already had its own official brew, Ironman Organic Coffee. Plus, sponsors like Gatorade, Ford and Powerbar spent good money to make their presence known. For a small coffee brand, paying for sign-age on the island was out of the question.

The sea, however, was not. Since nobody owns the ocean, Boyce and a friend decided to build a floating coffee bar on an outrigger, then float it out to the swim course. To advertise it, they spread a canvas “billboard” out on the ocean floor 20 feet down—where practicing swimmers would be looking anyway. “Espresso Bar,” it said, with an arrow pointing the way.

As Boyce will tell you, setting up a billboard with 20 feet of ocean over you (atmospheric pressure doubles at 33 feet) isn’t easy. “You can’t just drop it there,” he said. “With the current, it took six or seven lung-busting trips to get it aligned.” The 20-lb. weights helped, too.

When your billboard’s under water and your core demo is swimmers, ROI is a little hard to calculate. But “a lot of athletes” blogged about it,” Boyce said. And the online mentions were a good thing, since those not fortunate enough to live on Molokai can find Boyce’s beans at or at Trader Joe’s.

Any chance the race’s official sponsors will imitate Boyce next year? Not likely. A new Ford on the ocean floor just doesn’t send the right message.

—Kenneth Hein

Might As Well Jump
It looms out of the mists of a Bavarian landscape, a structure so impossibly tall that, even before it’s put to use, it leaves visitors agape. Funded by BMW and built in the tiny hamlet of Oberpfaffelbachen, it’s not only the largest automobile ramp ever constructed, it’s one of the largest timber structures on earth. Locals are still getting used to what the ramp has done for the economy (entrepreneurs are selling everything from T-shirts to ramp-shaped pretzels), and amateur videos of it on YouTube have moved the hit counter into five digits.

Too bad it’s just a tall tale.

In a move that unequivocally proves that guerrilla marketing can be completely virtual, BMW (with creative help from Idea City in Austin, Texas) created a campaign called Rampenfest to call attention to the 1-Series sedan’s launch into the American market (get it?) this past April. While nobody quite expected the car to make it over the Atlantic (much less via a nonexistent ramp), the ginormous structure did its job even though Oberpfaffelbachen doesn’t exist and all the lederhosen-clad citizens in the Web “documentary” were actors.

“We can create guerrilla-marketing in a virtual world and give people the whole experience and the fun without going through the expense of building a ramp in Southern Bavaria,” said BMW marketing and events communications manager Shawn Ticehurst. “It should achieve the same objective, if not greater.” Ticehurst estimated that based on Web hits and blog mentions, some 10 million people have “seen” the ramp. A decent return, considering they didn’t spent a buck on timber.

Ten thousand miles to the southwest, another kind of fake car ramp delivered the goods for Australia’s SBS network TV show TopGear. To rev up publicity for the stunt-heavy car program, Sydney-based Razor Junior dispatched a guerrilla team to search for ordinary rows of parked cars, then set up two very realistic-looking jump ramps (both bearing the show’s logo) on either side.

Even though no real jump was in the offing, that was—just like with BMW’s ramp—not the point. “By the time people got back to their cars, they had a reason to be nervous,” said creative director Josh Moore. “Yeah, we were definitely keen on a bit of media attention. News crews and even the cops showed up, so that was a bonus.”

The biggest bonus, according to Patrick Garrigan, co-author of Guerrilla Marketing for Dummies, is that the scary nature of the stunt reflected the show’s scrappy personality. “There’s nothing more guerrilla for a brand like this than to find some poor, unfortunate soul and setting up a daredevil ramp around his car. Plus, nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd.”

—Robert Klara

There’s Waldo
Waldo—the beloved, bespectacled kids’ book character famed for disappearing into enormous crowds—has been surprisingly easy to pick out lately. Flashbulbs caught Waldo at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week (never mind he was still wearing the same striped shirt and matching cap. So 80s). There he was again, sauntering amid the runners at the New York City ING Marathon. And no, it wasn’t the Chianti going to your head—that really was Waldo wandering down Mulberry Street in Manhattan during the San Gennaro Festival.

The appearances were the work of Entertainment Rights, which took over the Where’s Waldo franchise last year. Charged with reigniting interest in this 21-year-old comic character, the brand did the seemingly obvious: it unleashed him among the masses.

“Waldo loves the crowds. He’ll turn up wherever the action is,” said Nicole Blake, svp, marketing for Entertainment Rights. “The groundswell so far has been fantastic.”

But what’s the point of putting a kids’ character in indisputably grown-up settings? The idea was born after Blake found ER employees grabbing Waldo books from the office; it was obvious that Waldo’s first fans—now in their 20s—still liked him.

Which is why Waldo can also be found on Bebo, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube and on All of the efforts promote the catalog of Waldo books including the latest Where’s Waldo: The Ultimate Travel Collection. Waldo has also been licensed for T-shirts, puzzles, games and Halloween costumes and will likely appear on accessories, travel gear and other products.

Yet despite the online push, there is something gratifying about the guerrilla stunts that allowed the public to actually see the elusive Waldo in person. Waldo posed with model Jessica Stram as Liz McClean showed off her Waldo-inspired outfit during Fashion Week.  At the marathon, he mingled with surprised runners after they crossed the finish line.

In fact, Waldo’s really been getting around this year. Over in the U.K.—where Waldo’s known as Wally—127 students from Kent University set a Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of people dressed as the character on Sept. 23.

If you couldn’t spot Waldo on that day, you had a problem.

—Kenneth Hein

Belting It Out
When Western Union charged the Hong Kong office of Publicis with getting across its message of quick, direct and convenient cash transfers, art director Leung Chung wasn’t sure what to do at first. That changed abruptly the day he was standing in line at his local grocery checkout counter. A child in line along with his maid decided it would be fun to put a dollar bill on the grocery conveyor belt. Predictably, the dollar started to move—swiftly, directly, automatically. And that got Chung thinking.

Before long, Publicis completed a simple but highly inventive ambient marketing installation—a Hong Kong dollar sticker that travels via conveyor belt between corresponding hands on either side of the rollers. Not only was using the checkout line conveyor belt relatively easy, it was demographically aimed, too.

In Hong Kong, most maids are Filipinas who often send money home to their families but, because they get little time off, usually can’t get to a bank. Enter Western Union—right at the local supermarket. “Most of these maids’ time is spent in their employers’ homes or in going out to buy food for the household,” Chung explained. “The supermarket was a perfect place to connect with our target market.”

While conveyor belt campaigns like this have been done before (BBDO, New York, for instance, demonstrated a Milky Way’s caramel stretchiness by placing it on one such strip), the Publicis guerrilla effort is notable for “delivering the brand’s promise of speedy delivery as well as understanding the shopper patterns of their target consumer,” said Seth Grossman, managing director at Carat’s media planning office in Eastern China.

It’s definitely imaginative—but did it work? During the installation’s two-week run in a North Point supermarket, the nearest Western Union branch saw a bump in transfers, while Publicis’ own research showed a recall rate of 90 percent.

—Elaine Wong

Scaring Up Some Business
Have you checked the children? Have you observed me taking a photograph of the front of your house, which I will in turn mail to you?

OK, the second line wasn’t part of When a Stranger Calls, but it sure felt like a scary movie for many South Africans when Bosch struck on a unique way to sell home-security systems in a country notorious for its high crime rate.

A guerrilla team dispatched by agency DDB South Africa visited various Johannesburg neighborhoods to take Polaroids of the houses. Next, a sticker was adhered to the back of the photo with the handwritten caption, “With a CCTV Security System, you would have seen me outside your house.” The mysterious missive was then tossed in the mailbox. The homes—300 of them in all—were chosen because they’re situated in high-crime areas.

“In South Africa, crime is a very real problem, especially home burglaries,” said Paul Binikos, new business development director at DDB. “So for someone to know that a stranger was watching their home is a scary and common problem.”

Yeah, we get that. But did this little protection racket scare up business? (Because frankly, if a company tried this sort of thing in the U.S., it would probably be lawyers getting the business, not Bosch). But not only did sales of the home-security systems go up, a local paper gave the surveillance stunt ink in a story about the dangers of not being security conscious. Bosch is considering a second round of scares. This time, teams will use digital cameras to cut costs. What a relief.

So far, account executives haven’t found any retaliatory horse heads in their beds from hostile, humorless homeowners. “With the unique nature of this campaign we obviously had a high amount of risk, but fortunately no complaints were made that we know of,” Binikos said. “Perhaps they were too scared to.”

—Becky Ebenkamp

Trashy Entertainment
Just imagine—a metropolitan bus that picks up passengers and picks up the trash, too! Why, it’s even better than a flock of Priuses!

Sorry, that particular green future’s not quite here yet. But the residents of Amsterdam in The Netherlands did get a surprise this year as they glanced at the back of a city bus to see two sanitary men clinging to either side of a garbage compactor.

Ah, the magic of vehicle wraps. Created by Grey’s Amsterdam office for the Keep Holland Clean Foundation, the highly realistic stickers were designed to remind locals not to leave their garbage on the bus. “You’ve got those free newspapers and magazines laying on the bus,” said copywriter Pol Hoenderboom. “Kids going to school leave their sandwiches and gums and Coca-Cola cans on the floor.”

Well, maybe not now, they won’t. To heighten the illusion, the foundation chose a bus with a high-end rear section that resembled the profile of a garbage truck. Mud flaps below the rear bumpers read: “Don’t turn the bus into a garbage truck. It’s just as easy to throw your trash in the waste bin.”

Apparently, the litterbugs have been listening. Littering has been declining in Amsterdam (down 40 percent since 2002) and now Grey hopes to extend its campaign to include trains, too. Like other forms of advertising, the long-term efficacy of ambient campaigns like this one remains to be seen, said Rahul Sabnis, lead digital director at EuroRSCG’s New York office. However, he said, it gets the message into the public sphere: “Whether the consumer agrees or disagrees, at least you started the conversation.”

—Elaine Wong


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