Obscure holidays and blood-filled Nikes: How guerrilla marketing helps startups punch above their budgets
What do you call a dog food and toy brand with 62 million YouTube hits, a bedding brand with 2,100 posts on Instagram, or a seltzer brand that wins over retailers with a TikTok?
You call them what you should call every business in the 21st century: A media business.
We’re firm believers that every company fits this profile these days. Why? Because as of April 2022, there are over 4.6 billion active social media users across all social platforms and around 5 billion people surfing the web across the globe.
Image Source: eMarketer
It’s not like it’s a secret or anything, just something to consciously recognize. There are 51 million YouTube channels, 2.4 million podcasts, hundreds of millions of blog posts, and countless other content offerings produced every year across both business and personal accounts. For marketing teams at growing brands, this is concerning for a couple of reasons:
Public attention is a zero-sum game, and these social arenas are packed to the brim with competitors vying for views
Advertising and customer acquisition costs are rising, while return on ad spend (ROAS) continues to drop
Whether your brand has unicorn-status aspirations or simply wants to maximize an emaciated budget, embracing the spirit of guerrilla marketing is key. It’s far from a definitive playbook and more of a frame of reference for optimizing the value of all marketing endeavors. So no need to worry about whether or not it will fit in with your current marketing strategy.
Too busy hand-writing Thank You cards to your customers? Here’s a TL;DR:
In a time when 4.6 billion people use social media, and 5 billion people surf the web, every company is a media company.
Ad costs are going up, and ROAS is going down. To succeed in this climate, brands need to embrace guerrilla marketing.
Jay Levinson defines guerrilla marketing as innovative, unconventional, and low-cost marketing techniques aimed at obtaining maximum exposure for a product.
Here are 5 brands that do guerrilla marketing right:
Outdoor furniture brand Yardbird sold their first $100,000 on Craigslist.
Bark co-opts National Squirrel Appreciation Day to rally customers around a common enemy.
Brooklinen co-founders packed a Zip-Car with product samples and hand-written notes and delivered them to NYC tastemakers.
Kenko Matcha uses pop-up shops and free samples to increase the number of recurring customers.
Seltzer brand Nectar spread their phone number on TikTok to capture customers and win over LA shops.
Embracing the guerrilla mindset can work for any company in any niche. You just need to embrace innovative, unconventional, and low-cost marketing channels.
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Before we go any further, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what it really means to embrace guerrilla marketing.
The great equalizer of guerrilla marketing
The world was a very different place in 1984 when Jay Levinson shook up the marketing zeitgeist with his book: Guerrilla Marketing.
Marketing departments were still enthralled by the mystique of Mad Men marketing, computers were only in 9.1% of American households, and social media consisted of flyers on bulletin boards. But just like today, a top concern for growing companies was finding a way to maximize small marketing budgets.
Levinson’s solution, outlined in the book, defines guerrilla marketing as: “innovative, unconventional, and low-cost marketing techniques aimed at obtaining maximum exposure for a product.”
These three features are what give guerrilla marketers an advantage over more established brands. They are also the benchmark by which we should evaluate marketing tactics that prioritize outcome over flashiness—a feat that is increasingly hard to achieve these days. Despite Levinson’s sentiment about guerrilla marketing being for “the little guy,” many of the examples marketers turn to come from established brands.
Let’s take the example of Lil Nas X and his blood-filled Nikes.
Image source: https://mschfsneakers.com/satan-shoes/
Accompanying the release of the Montero music video, wherein Lil Nas X and Lucifer get a little frisky, the iconoclastic performer one-upped himself by releasing 666 pairs of Nike Air Max 97’s in collaboration with MSCHF. Complete with biblical references to Satan, golden pentagrams, and an alleged drop of human blood, these shoes sold out in under a minute.
The stunt reached the peak of virality once conservative pundits and pearl-clutchers across the country got word. There was even talk of Nike taking him to court, but that eventually lost momentum. What didn’t lose momentum was the Lil Nas X brand. Here’s what happened in the fallout of the Nike campaign:
473-million views on the Montero YouTube video
1.3 billion streams of the Montero album over its first 3 weeks
5 Grammy nominations
It’s a guerrilla marketing example for the ages. Innovative, unconventional, and (for a music icon, at least) low budget. But just like Deadpool’s Tinder profile or Fiji's “Water Girl” at the Golden Globes, these campaigns don’t exactly inspire brands with small budgets — they almost disguise the fact that this tactic is actually most effective for smaller companies.
Here are some examples of brands applying guerrilla marketing tactics that you could, true to the guerrilla spirit, steal for your own brand.
5 examples of punching above your budget with guerrilla marketing
Guerrilla marketing begins with the premise that every instance of contact a company has with the outside world is a marketing endeavor. While this opens the door to some confusion over roles in large organizations, it fits perfectly with the scrappy mentality that startups need to adopt to be successful.
These 5 brands exemplify how innovative, unconventional, and low-cost guerrilla marketing tactics help companies realize the ultimate goal of Levinson’s strategy: increasing profits.
1. Yardbird turns to Craigslist to kickstart growth
Jay Dillion, Yardbird co-founder, first tried to build momentum for their outdoor furniture business through the pop-up style approach in a local Minneapolis mall. Unfortunately, “boomers who are getting their exercise and young millennials looking for a place to eat” weren’t exactly their ICP.
Brands with seasonality don’t have the option of waiting around to see if a strategy plays out, particularly not in a fledgling state. So, in true guerrilla fashion, the Yardbird team decided to sell their furniture out of their warehouse using Craigslist as their marketing channel.
You’re probably wondering, well, why? We reached out to Jay with that same question. Here was his response:
“We turned to Craigslist because we need people to be local and show up in significant numbers. Furniture is expensive to ship and takes a significant amount of margin, so it made more sense than eBay or Furnish as people could bring it home themselves.”
The decision to use this platform helped Jay and his team sell their first $100,000 in products over the course of just two weeks. All without the additional costs of a website, social media ads, printed fliers, and shipping.
With their product validated, the team rolled out their DTC website the next year and sold $500,000 over the course of three weeks. The rest is history.
The Jay Levinson takeaway:
“Traditional marketing identifies the heavy weapons of marketing: radio, TV, newspaper, magazines, direct mail, and the internet. Guerrilla marketing identifies 200 weapons of marketing, and many of them are free.”
(We suggest making Craigslist number 201.)
2. Bark co-opts an obscure holiday to rally customers
Following the guerrilla marketing playbook to a T, Bark applies a principle that many forget: successful companies spend the majority of their time marketing to existing customers. They created a fun campaign by co-opting an obscure holiday, Squirrel Appreciation Day, and turning it into a day for rallying around every dog’s worst enemy.
Every January 21st, squirrels take over the Bark Instagram account and troll the company and all dog lovers.
Innovative? I suppose.
But the big question is how (if at all) does this impact Bark’s bottom line? And if it does, is the juice worth the squeeze? From a customer engagement perspective, it seems to be working out.
The squirrel-related posts have slightly above average likes and more comments than the rest, but that doesn’t tell us a whole lot about the financial impact. This year, the Bark team prepared for their annual “National Squirrel Appreciation Day” by announcing the rollout of their Anti-Squirrel Squirrel (A.S.S.) Club and expanding the campaign to TikTok.
Potential copyright infringement and naughty acronyms aside, the Bark team has now turned this holiday into an opportunity to drive more of their devoted followers to purchase the latest BarkBox package. Focusing your marketing efforts on obtaining new customers is great, but don’t forget that existing customers generate about 65% of your business.
The Jay Levinson takeaway:
“Nothing personal, but when you read the word marketing, you’re probably thinking of prospects only. Don’t make that mistake. More than half of your marketing time should be devoted to your existing customers.”
3. Brooklinen is your daily reminder to hit the streets
With the rise of remote work and distributed organizations, companies often don’t notice how digital blinders impact their marketing efforts. Research. Advertising. Outreach. All these tasks are carried out with a few clicks or swipes on a screen.
It’s so easy to let our devices do the heavy lifting for these efforts that we forget there are real people out there to connect with. People who don’t charge for interactions on a subscription or per-click basis.
Brooklinen is proof that sometimes you need to forget about investing money and just invest your time and energy. (It turns out they have a pretty great ROI.)
Brooklinen co-founder Rich Fulop outlines 3 guerrilla tactics that he and his wife Vicki deployed in the early days that built the foundation for their ascension in the retail space:
They held on-the-spot, 30-second interviews with hundreds of shoppers at stores and on the sidewalks to validate their concept. All for the price of a pencil and pad of paper.
They packed a rental van with 50 prototype sets, dropping them off at the offices of corporations like Apartment Therapy, Hearst, and Condé Nast, complete with handwritten notes about their aspirations as a husband and wife team.
They leveraged platforms like Kickstarter, Task Rabbit, and Uber to help with customer acquisition, packing, and delivery.
While the second tactic certainly wasn’t free (they had to eat the unit costs and van rental), it was a successful investment. Just under half of the influencers they approached decided to write an article featuring the brand. Brooklinen’s scrappiness and willingness to turn sweat into equity ultimately got them recognized by some of New York’s top magazines.
The Jay Levinson takeaway:
Guerrilla marketing maintains that if you want to invest money, you can - but you don’t have to if you are willing to invest time, energy, imagination, and information.
4. Kenko Matcha joins the growing pop-up movement
“Sooner or later, everything old is new again.” This quote from Stephen King encapsulates how trends go in and out of vogue across fashion, music, and cuisine. As the return of pop-up shops shows us, it also applies to business tactics.
Prior to the pandemic, pop-up retail was an 11-figure industry, and that momentum has carried through to the current day by an unlikely source: eCommerce companies. Fifteen years ago, brick-and-mortar companies were scrambling to set up online stores. Now it’s digitally native brands like Birchbox, Allbirds, and Casper who are seeking a physical presence. In-person is new again.
Even if your brand doesn’t have room for a commercial lease in the budget, there are plenty of options for thrifty brands looking to break new ground. Take Australian specialty tea brand Kenko Matcha, for instance.
The brand is a one-man show run by former chef Sam James, who uses pop-up events to drive outsized results for the Kenko Matcha brand:
“One of my most successful guerrilla marketing tactics has been hosting events where people can come in and try our product before they buy it. These events are great for building awareness and increasing sales. They are also useful in helping us build relationships with influencers who will share their experience using our product with their followers on social media. Our last event delivered 35% of our total sales in that quarter, and increased our numbers of recurring customers by 21%.”
Here’s a photo of one of Kenko’s recent pop-ups at a local restaurant in the Melbourne area:
Image source: Sam James
It’s not the flashiest of marketing tactics, but it’s certainly helping drive profits for Kenko. At the end of the day, would you rather have a costly ad campaign go viral or take the beaten trail that brings in repeat customers?
The Jay Levinson takeaway:
If it’s not driving profits, it’s probably not guerrilla marketing.
5. Nectar TikToks their phone number to win over retailers
If you were hoping a focus on guerrilla marketing would spare you from investing in the pound-for-pound social media champ, we’re sorry to disappoint you.
TikTok has not-so-silently taken over as the top social media platform for Gen Z and young millennials. The powerful formula of “Home video + trending song + TikTok’s algorithm = massive ROI potential for brands” is something the late Jay Levinson could only dream of. Emerging and newly established DTC brands have been leveraging this for the last few years with amazing results.
Case in point, Nectar.
The hard seltzer brand, like many businesses, had it tough during 2020. They were fighting to enter a saturated seltzer market, they were facing supply chain delays, and they were striking out with retailer after retailer. Being a resourceful guerrilla marketer, Jeremy Kim developed an ingenious strategy to win over those same retailers: TikTok.
In particular, this TikTok:
On Nectar’s origin story page, the team explains how this post helped change their lives by:
Gaining over 300,000 views in 3 days.
Generating hundreds of texts from interested consumers.
Providing data convincing 2 LA stores to participate in a secret drop.
Forming an SMS list that they used to sell out the first drop in under an hour.
After replicating this strategy across the rest of California and some major cities. They’re offered in hundreds of stores coast to coast and have rolled out their successful YouTube show Under the Influence—all thanks to one life-changing TikTok post.
The Jay Levinson takeaway:
“Guerrilla marketing requires that you be very technocozy. If you’re not, your technophobia is holding back your small business.”
Go get your guerrilla on
Remember, guerrilla marketing isn’t always about gigantic billboards, Tinder profiles for superheroes, or Nikes filled with bodily fluids. Yes, those examples are all unconventional and undeniably effective at gaining clicks, views, and attention, but they aren’t exactly cheap. We suggest you keep this nugget of gold from Levinson in mind:
“Guerrilla marketing reminds you that the main number that merits your attention is the size of your profits. If it doesn’t earn a profit, it’s probably not guerrilla marketing.”
Here’s a recap of how 5 brands leverage guerrilla marketing to improve their bottom line:
Yardbird used Craigslist to sell their first $100,000 in outdoor furniture.
Bark kept customers entertained and engaged with a fake Instagram beef.
Brooklinen pounded some pavement for consumer research, influencer outreach, and delivery.
Kenko Matcha jumped on the pop-up shop train to give out samples and acquire recurring customers.
Nectar blended TikTok and SMS to win over customers and retailers.
There’s a massive armory of guerrilla marketing weapons for you to use for profitable brand growth, so get started today. And if you want to stay on the cutting edge of all things brand, check out our newsletter, On Brand, and get bi-weekly insights from other scrappy brands!