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The guerilla renaissance: how can social causes cut through in 2022?

By Charlotte Willcocks, Senior strategist



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October 28, 2022 | 7 min read

Following guerrilla marketing success for the movie Smile, Charlotte Willcocks, head of strategy at agency Impero, tells us how to find your moment, make impact and get people talking.

The NoMoPox campaign on a billboard

Impero’s NoMoPox campaign: is guerilla marketing changing? / Image courtesy of Impero

The average person now sees between 4,000 and 10,000 adverts per day. Meanwhile, every advert we make now competes with every show on Netflix, your sister’s wedding and Blink 182’s latest reunion.

But what if you’re not a world-famous, slick streaming service with millions to blow on media spend? What if you’re also an organization with an important social cause to communicate? Compound that with increased consumer distrust around large corporations and government bodies, along with almost complete messaging saturation, and you’ve got yourself a proper pickle (to put it lightly).

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Social problems

Historically, social media was a bit of a ‘get out of jail free’ card: low-cost, with the potential for very high reach, making it a favorite for platforming social causes and creating social movements behind campaigns. But things just don’t catch on like they used to. Can you imagine there being a global moment like the ice bucket challenge now? Me neither.

Instagram is full of hundreds, if not thousands, of causes, movements and issues all vying for your attention. As with TV advertising in the 00s, compassion fatigue is taking over the social sphere.

Then there’s the increasingly algorithmic nature of channels such as TikTok, enabling you to find your people easily (through communities such as ‘booktok,’ ‘mormontok’ and ‘deeptok’ to name a few) but tending to cut off your reach beyond that. It feels like there’s just not enough attention to go around in the social cause space.

Enter the guerilla

So: where to from here? I think the answer may well lie in guerilla marketing. In his book Contagious, Jonah Berger made the case for how things catch on, rarely starting and ending online. The idea of online virality in marketing is often lent on because it’s easier to measure. But, in reality, offline word-of-mouth is really the key to an idea or product catching on. The conversation by the kettle at the office or the voice note sent while on your morning walk hold more equity for an organization than any passive like on a social post.

A recent campaign by Paramount for its horror movie Smile got me thinking. It placed nightmarish smiling spectators in the crowd of major league baseball games, right in the view of news cameras. The result? Instant online virality and online news outlets falling over themselves to see where the smiling spectators would show up next.

How did it manage such success with a seemingly simple activation that could have gone totally unnoticed, and what can we steal for social issues marketing?

There are four key rules of play.

1. Fuse the mission and medium

In the Smile example, its mission became its medium. It wanted to scare the bejesus out of people and that’s exactly what the activation did. This immersive move put onlookers at the heart of the campaign, blurring the line between reality and imagination.

2. Don’t neglect the big idea

So many guerilla marketing campaigns fall off the cultural radar because they take a more ‘ambient’ approach at the expense of deploying a big idea. Just like a traditional campaign, guerilla tactics are only as good as their core big idea.

3. Collaborate to reach specific groups

Reaching marginalized groups can be a challenge, especially with harder-hitting PSAs in the social issue space. Impero’s recent monkeypox campaign counteracted this by collaborating with LGBTQ+ creatives, designers and photographers to add richness to the narrative.

4. Give people something to talk about

Using the monkeypox example, to override the current monkeypox media narrative we went to the source with our PSA, plastering our provocative stickers all over loo stalls in London to catch people’s attention and get them at a moment when self-examination is possible. Using provocation and humor drove people to capture the stickers themselves and spread the message for us. Even better, it’s totally free.

Like all trends that stand the test of time (the butterfly hair clip, crocs and Groovy Chick pencil cases), guerilla marketing is one nostalgic trend that we’re welcoming back as a one-stop-shop for cutting through the sea of messaging apathy in your next campaign.

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