Advertising and Marketing and Communications and Media & Marketing

Guerrilla advertising might seem wacky, but often gets results

January 28, 2008

The 24 area Liberty Tax Service outlets are known for their human mascots dressed up as the Statue of Liberty or Uncle Sam, standing on street corners and waving in traffic. With the tax season upon us, the red-white-and-blue-clad characters even go door-to-door to area businesses, delivering doughnuts, cookies and, of course, a pitch about how Liberty can handle your tax returns.

Liberty's approach is just one incarnation of one of the fastest-growing trends in advertising. Using warfare strategy and wild promotional props, guerrilla marketing has leapt from urban streets to mainstream corporate America.

The tactic might seem a bit hokey, admitted longtime Indianapolis marketer Vic Ruthig, who owns four central Indiana Liberty Tax franchises, but there's little doubt in his mind it works.

In the last four years, Ruthig--who pays his patriotic mascots $6 to $9 an hour--has seen his business double.

His $68,000 annual marketing budget, Ruthig said, is a fraction of his main competitors', H.R. Block and Jackson Hewitt.

"Our marketing may seem unorthodox, but almost 60 percent of the customers that come through our doors said they were first attracted by our wavers," said Ruthig, who formerly worked for The Promotion Co., a locally based event marketing firm. "The cornerstone of growing the business is guerrilla marketing."

The term was coined by Jay Conrad Levinson, a marketing executive turned author who penned a book on the subject in 1984.

Initially, guerrilla marketing was adopted primarily by small businesses with even smaller budgets.

At its core, guerrilla marketing is taken straight to consumers, and occasionally in a direct attempt to torpedo a competitor's sales efforts.

Mike Sold Me on rubber chicken

In 2000, Mike Watkins, one of central Indiana's leading real estate agents, started using a tricked-out Hummer as an advertising tool.

More recently, he drove a 1956 New York City police cruiser pulling a giant tennis shoe with running lights and lettering that reads, "Mike Sold Me."

And that wasn't his boldest move.

Watkins and his agents recently went door-to-door covertly hanging rubber chickens on the doorknobs of people's homes that were listed with other agents. There was a note attached, that said, "You fouled up." The note explained why the home seller would have been better off listing the house with Watkins.

Guerrilla marketing truly can be "hand-to-hand combat" between marketers and business owners, said Tom Denari, president of one of Indianapolis' largest ad agencies, Young & Laramore.

But the goal, as outlined by the movement's founder, he said, is to market "one-on-one."

"The key to guerrilla marketing is creating a relationship as opposed to blasting out a message," Denari said.

Going door-to-door might be true to that principle, but other so-called guerrilla tactics are clearly aimed at a broad audience.

In the earliest days of the movement, agencies would hire people to wear T-shirts emblazoned with a corporate message and plant them in the front row of prime-time sports and entertainment events in hopes of getting on camera. There were attempts to have small airplanes buzz over the Super Bowl and other major events trailing banners containing corporate messages.

Several ad firms even paid college students to print corporate messages on their foreheads. One student in Omaha rented his forehead out for $37,375 a month.

Over the top

Some campaigns went too far.

Last February, Turner Broadcasting Systems Inc., the Atlanta-based parent of cable television network CNN, planted small, plastic, cartoon-like characters around 20 major U.S. cities.

The character had his middle finger extended with a blinking light attached. It was a promotion for the late-night adult cartoon "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" on Turner's Cartoon Network.

It wasn't the extended finger that got Turner in trouble. Boston officials thought the blinking toy looked like an explosive device. Several bridges, roadways and public transportation systems were shut down while the devices were destroyed.

Turner Broadcasting fired its president and agreed to pay $2 million in compensation for emergency response to the devices.

"The movement got pretty crazy," said Bob Gustafson, Ball State University advertising professor. "But the bottom line is, a lot of these tactics work."

In the last decade, corporate giants such as Coca-Cola and Ford Motor Co. have increased their use of guerrilla tactics. Local marketers said two-thirds of all ad campaigns now include some element of guerrilla marketing.

"We're exploring guerrilla tactics with all our accounts," said Tom Hirschauer, president of ad agency Publicis Indianapolis.

What was once limited to youth, sports and entertainment marketing is now crossing over to almost every business sector.

Guerrilla goes digital

As digital and wireless technologies emerge, the way marketers create that relationship through guerrilla tactics is drastically changing.

Locally based MZD Advertising deployed four people wearing backpacks full of electronic wizardry during the Sept. 6 Indianapolis Colts season-opening rally on Monument Circle.

"The place was so packed, you couldn't get anywhere near the front," said T.J. Gipson, MZD's director of multicultural and entertainment marketing.

The gadgets in the backpacks beamed personalized text messages--in this case for MZD client Papa John's Pizza--to anyone with a cell phone within 100 or so yards.

"Creativity is the key with guerrilla marketing," Gipson said. "It's the most important resource, even more so than money."

MZD has placed models in nightclubs to chat up the qualities of a client's new drink. It also regularly takes its clients' messages into hair salons.

Gipson, whose wife owns a beauty salon and formerly sold hair care products wholesale, has compiled contacts with 500 barber and beauty shops nationwide that he uses to market his clients' products.

"These are great places for buzz marketing," Gipson said. "These are places you can see a politician, athlete, corporate executive and the average Joe."

The firm is preparing to sign a contract with Ford for what Gipson said could be one of the agency's most unusual campaigns. Ford is interested in using Gipson's network in 20 U.S. cities to promote a vehicle launch this year. He wouldn't reveal specifics because the deal isn't finalized.

Despite guerrilla marketing's spread, Ray Compton, longtime marketer and owner of locally based Compton Strategies, doesn't think local marketers are aggressive enough.

"Most people are afraid to do something different in this market, and that frustrates me," Compton said. "People get scared, so they do the same things as everyone else; they put up a sign, they run a radio ad.

"But look, you have a small-business owner dressing people up as the Statue of Liberty and taking it to the streets. How crazy is that? But it makes them stand out. And that's smart."

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