‘Roach-bait’ marketing comes out of woodwork

Sony Ericsson Mobile screwed up. After launching a $5 million undercover guerrilla campaign to promote their uber-cool T68i - a cellphone that can take, send and receive digital pictures - they announced the campaign to the press, who responded with knee-jerk cynicism at the very idea of undercover, or stealth, marketing.

Sony Ericsson Mobile screwed up. After launching a $5 million undercover guerrilla campaign to promote their uber-cool T68i – a cellphone that can take, send and receive digital pictures – they announced the campaign to the press, who responded with knee-jerk cynicism at the very idea of undercover, or stealth, marketing.

Editorials in the New York Times, Bloomberg News and the Globe and Mail hastily beat the drum against ‘the secret agents of capitalism’ with liberal use of Aldous Huxley references, Nader-esque consumer advocacy and mild disdain for Western civilization. Typical stuff, really.

At the heart of the backlash against the campaign was Sony Ericsson’s use of actors and actresses posing as cheerful tourists and bar-hoppers who are armed with the cellular gadgets. They engage consumers directly by asking them if they could take a picture with the phone for them, or create buzz and word-of-mouth by receiving pictures in trend-setting environments.

If in simplicity lies genius, this guerrilla campaign certainly carried a high IQ. The T68i is targeted directly to young early adopters of next-level technology, who are greatly influenced by either a hands-on trial or peer recommendations. And in a world of interminable high-tech product launches and indistinguishable marketing, going underground guerrilla was a unique and cost-effective way to market through the clutter.

The screw-up, of course, arose when Sony Ericsson went public with the campaign. Guerrillas usually don’t march down the parade grounds, and stealth marketing does not come with a press release. The underground essence of the campaign was blown. Most stories in the press began with a ‘warning’ that innocent-looking tourists were actually viral pitchmen and went on to describe a typical (and rather unimaginative) interaction between an ‘unsuspecting’ consumer and a peer marketer. With the help of some traditional marketing folks, they termed these interactions ‘roach-bait marketing.’

As marketers, I think we can collectively come up with a better term than roach-bait marketing, which is really another, albeit creepy, way of saying stealth, viral, peer-to-peer, underground, word-of-mouth, street, buzz or influence marketing. It’s a shame that out of all these choices, ‘roach-bait’ has been hijacked as a pejoratively accepted term when describing this new form of marketing.

But it hasn’t been the first time that innovative marketing bears the brunt of the mainstream’s indignation, nor the first time that underground marketing is quickly co-opted into the overall marketing context. I’m sure more than a few editorialists were pissed off when telemarketing first emerged. Film studios have been selling product placements for years; the Internet has been used as a peer-to-peer and viral platform probably since its inception; stadiums are no longer named after coaches.

Celebrities are commercialized in more ways than one: Cingular Wireless has recently launched a guerrilla campaign in New York where celebrities like Spike Lee, Joan Rivers and comedian Darrell Hammond secretly board New York sightseeing buses and deliver an impromptu tour for the surprised passengers, all brought to you by Cingular Wireless. I don’t know about you, but a guided tour from Joan Rivers offends me more than roach-bait marketing ever could. Where’s the press against that?

Guerrilla marketing is a logical step for marketers seeking a point of difference in a sea of competing messages and commercial pervasiveness, especially when targeting the so-called MTV generation, who can tune out a commercial faster than you can say ‘Sponsored by.’ As a youth marketer, I am routinely bemused by the immunity and indifference that this demographic has to traditional forms of marketing, and equally amazed by the efficacy and importance of peer-to-peer interaction and word-of-mouth. The 16-28 marketplace is frustratingly elusive and amazingly lucrative for all types of marketers, but this is the jungle where guerrillas thrive.

Che Guevara wrote that a guerrilla campaign can only be effective if it is a clandestine operation and has the support of the people where it is being conducted. At the risk of sounding pedantic, this is exactly what guerrilla marketing is all about. All brand marketing, I think, is based on trust. Guerrilla campaigns must not stray away from that directive.

Stealth marketing isn’t about conning the consumer into buying a product or brand, it’s about bringing the product or brand into the everyday context of the consumer in a creative and engaging way. It is not deceptive marketing, there is no ‘bait and switch’ involved, there is no hard sell.

The pundits against guerrilla marketing don’t give the consumer enough credit when they lambaste campaigns as ‘manipulative.’ Guerrilla marketing works best when the product is natural to the environment and target demo, when the approach and delivery is useful and informative to the consumer, and when conducted in a non-intrusive manner.

If asked by a consumer, guerrillas should never hide their intentions nor employer. Long one-on-one conversations with a consumer are often the result of a successful guerrilla session, where product information and brand trust are effectively established.

Guerrilla movements invariably fail to survive once they are infiltrated by the establishment. This is also true for guerrilla marketing. It doesn’t work for just any product or brand, and certainly can’t work if it becomes as pervasive as, say, telemarketing. So all those editorialists shouldn’t worry: once mainstream marketers get involved, guerrilla marketing’s effectiveness will be lost.

And maybe the Sony Ericsson campaign was leaked to the press intentionally, as my colleague remarked. Then it would be the ultimate roach campaign, the perfect bait for a hungry press just looking to bad-mouth a good marketing concept.

Max Lenderman is partner and CD at Gearwerx in Montreal. He can be reached a mlenderman@gearwerx.com.