Is guerrilla marketing ethical?

August 20, 2011 at 11:28

James Nunn, Managing Director & Co-Founder of TLC

‘Guerrilla marketing’ is a phrase coined and defined by Jay Conrad Levinson in his 1984 book Guerrilla Marketing. The term has since entered the popular vocabulary to also describe aggressive, unconventional marketing methods generally. Typically, guerrilla marketing is unexpected and surprising, where consumers are often targeted when and where they least expect it, which can make the idea, product or service that’s being marketed more memorable, generate buzz, and even spread virally.

By its very nature, guerrilla marketing demands an element of ‘surprise’. This brings an element of chaos into the marketing mix, because – as we all know – a nice surprise for some can be a nasty surprise for others. Fundamentally, guerrilla marketing is a risky business as companies large and small have found out to their cost – see here for an example. I certainly believe guerrilla marketing can be ethical, but only if it’s smart. That is – if the initial thinking is correct and accompanied by good intent, if the concept is inventive, interesting, and creative and delivered to perfection. However, the ’ethics’ of a marketing campaign can break down irreparably if the initial thinking is flawed, the intent to deceive or if the guerrilla marketing process or delivery fails in some way.

Surely what is completely unethical is when an organisation hides the truth or encourages the belief that something is real and authentic when it really isn’t. To me, that’s when guerrilla marketing can – and indeed should – damage an organisation’s reputation. An example is the story of the singer Marié Digby uncovered by Ethan Smith and Peter Lattman of the Wall Street Journal, check it out here.

Another is the case of ‘LonelyGirl15’ – YouTube phenomena, later revealed as a professional actress and represented by an agency. Don’t believe everything you see or hear – there are enough examples out there. It’s a shame because it tarnishes the reputations and otherwise really good work of the majority of marketing professionals. But with the web and social networks becoming the playground for guerrilla marketeers, online consumers are going to need to keep their wits about them.

I don’t think these examples would have been welcomed by Jay Conrad Levinson into the guerrilla marketing family because as he so rightly emphasises: the Guerrilla Marketeer must “deliver the goods”. In his ‘The Guerrilla Marketing Handbook’, he states: “In order to sell a product or a service, a company must establish a relationship with the customer. It must build trust and support. It must understand the customer’s needs, and it must provide a product that delivers the promised benefits.”

Smart thinking combined with simple marketing truths: ‘establish relationships, build trust, understand the customer and deliver the promise’. If your guerrilla marketing campaign is doing anything other than these, you’re doomed to failure.

Other blogs on this subject:

Examples of guerrilla marketing:

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