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The 10 Truths of 'Real' Guerrilla Marketers

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If you look up the definition, "Guerrilla Marketing, is an unconventional way of performing promotional activities on a very low budget." While this is accurate, I'm not buying.

The great guerrillas like Che or Mao had something more going for them than being "unconventional and cheap." Their battles became legend because they were thinking beyond the next quarter.

That's why here I'm going in search of that "something more." As usual, I'm not claiming wisdom, so if you find omissions or flaws in my mini Sun Tzu on the Art of Guerrilla Marketing, don't hesitate to hit me.

And if all this macho talk of warfare is getting a bit too masculine for your taste, just remember that Wang Cong'er (Mulan, only without the happy ending) was one of the fiercest guerrillas of them all.

Here we go...


1. Set out to change the world

In the spirit of Guy Kawasaki: Don't launch a business unless you're prepared to change the world. No one ever freed a nation with features and benefits. People will get excited about your initiatives only if you clearly articulate how your proposition will liberate your customers in a way none of your competitors can. That is the true cause and banner of your guerrilla campaign. And if you can't come up with it, don't bother with the rest of this list.

2. It's not about the battle, it's about the war

If successfully waged, guerrilla campaigns cause "death by a thousand bee-stings." Yet, all too often, marketing initiatives that claim to be guerrilla in nature are planned without regard for the 999 stings to come. This leaves successful campaigns without follow-up or even budget. While in war there may be merit in merely irritating your enemy, in business it's simply a waste of money.

3. Power to the people

No guerrilla movement or revolution can succeed without popular support. Guerrilla campaigns are a great opportunity to involve your most loyal customers and staff. Consider community marketing, consumer-generated media (CGM), and co-creation programs to get them in the loop. Not to make money, but to help achieve the change you described in point 1. People love to improve the world. Invite them to your cause and treat them well.

4. Deploy mercenaries wisely

While agencies can be great allies by having extra resources to deploy, they also know that there will be a time that you will abandon them (come on, be honest). That is why they will offer you the same loyalty of any mercenary: as long as the money's good. The moment a budgetary glitch reduces budgets or margins, they will leave you to your own devices.

That is why you should involve agencies whenever you need the extra firepower, yet avoid relying on them for the long run. That, you can only do on your own, with your own staff and customers (as long as you treat them well).

5. Think small, but spectacular

Guerrilla campaigns are high on brainpower and low on budget. They use creativity, speed, and adaptability to capitalize on high-profile opportunities. Foster this attitude by combining tight budgets with high-to-impossible expectations from your marketing team or agency. And when they get lost in opportunities, focus their attention on the one thing that will really blow the market's mind.

6. Keep them guessing

Guerrilla campaigns always capitalize on the element of surprise. Not once, yet over and over again. If you have something that works, change it before your competitors can respond. If you focus on one geographic region in one month, move somewhere completely different (or not...).

If you can create a rhythm of surprise, yet stay true to your cause, your competitors won't see your next move coming, while your popular support keeps growing.

7. Get the gold and get out

Guerrilla campaigns are executed with laser precision. This means they get clear, quantifiable business objectives. Once these are achieved, you get out. Prolonging your initiative only leads to wasted resources, plus it gives your competition time to react.

Similarly, if it looks like a new tactic you try isn't working, get out fast. Don't let your pride get in the way and run to fight another day.

8. Lead the charge

Every cause needs a leader who's drive cannot be captured in a PowerPoint presentation. Love it or hate it, but this leader is you. And if you don't have the time to be with your troops when they need you, find someone who cares enough about your cause to do it in your place. Leaders should be where the action is, and in your case that's among your community, customers, and staff.

9. Don't forget propaganda

These days it's probably called word-of-mouth (WOM), yet in the old days, whenever the Partisans in Italy blew up another stronghold, the country knew about it in an instant. If one of your guerrilla marketing campaigns hits a homerun, get yourself a megaphone and shout it from the rooftops. You have taken another step to change the world. And don't take the credit yourself, but celebrate your heroes (customers, staff, and others), for they will be your biggest source of WOM.

10. Don't get killed by friendly fire

Guerrilla campaigns are by definition unorthodox, daring, visible, accountable, and prone to failure. This means that if you're in a large organization, people can get nervous about them. Prepare the ground by selling your bosses on your cause and the path you intend to walk. Demonstrate the benefits of involving your customer community and focusing your staff on "one goal." And if it looks like you really won't get any air cover, don't go it alone. Dead soldiers can't win wars.

Happy fighting!


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Alain Thys started his career in apparel and venture capital; he was in charge of retail and marketing at Reebok EMEA, which he left to flirt with dot-com adventureland. Today, he is managing partner and Storyteller at FutureLab, a Brussels-based boutique specialized in marketing, strategy, and business model innovation. Alain is a regular speaker and is working on two books simultaneously.

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