Sunday, September 10, 2006

Guerilla Graveyard?

It wasn't too long ago that guerilla marketing efforts focused on generating buzz at tradeshows had nothing but momentum. Think Bluetooth's notorious assault on the Consumer Electronics Show in which hundreds of models straight out of a Robert Palmer video swarmed the show floor.

But that was 2004. Today, we're seeing signs that trade show organizers and hosting venues are cracking down on guerilla marketing assaults on the floor.

It's no secret that organizers and hosting venues see every aspect of every event as a potential revenue stream. If they can't make a buck off something, they're loathe to allow it. And by their nature, guerilla marketing campaigns remove control over what happens on the floor from show organizers.

Which helps explain what happened as we recently prepared a client for an upcoming product launch at a large domestic trade show. I can't go into details about the client, product or guerilla tactics. Let's just say that the client is introducing a new product to U.S. media and distributors at the show. They've rented a small booth space. We came up with a campaign that involved actors walking the floor posing as something they're not (as actors are wont to do) in an effort to drive attendees to the client's booth and generate a buzz at the show.

As a courtesy to show organizers—and to protect the client—we contacted show organizers in advance to see if they'd be okay with the concept. The answer was, well, pretty clear: not a chance.

Now, since this is guerilla marketing, you'd be within reason to question why we went to the show organizers to begin with. Doesn't the politeness of this advance warning take the "guerilla" out of guerilla marketing? In the Bluetooth example cited above, the company contacted CES show organizers and got permission to move forward in advance. I know of other large companies that have taken the opposite approach, and staged guerilla/buzz stunts on the floor at industry expos without asking for permission first. These efforts produced great results and met with little or no flack from show organizers during or after the show. Safe to say, being a big, perennial exhibitor and spender can buy you forgiveness.

But smaller companies rarely have that big of a stick. Which brings us back to our client's upcoming show. The client loved our idea and agreed the buzz-generating potential was tremendous. But the client's relationships with the trade show and sponsoring organization were still in their infancy. They needed both to successfully launch their new product in the U.S. In the end, the risks outweighed the benefits—at least in Year One—and the idea was killed.

All of this raises an interesting question. Leading guerilla marketing practitioners will tell you that the real beauty of guerilla is its ability to produce big results for smaller companies with limited budgets. If that's true, is the window of opportunity closing for little guys looking to go guerilla at trade shows?

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