Guerrilla or Gorilla? What kind of Marketer are You?

Marlboro man

Just before Christmas I received the sad news that Jay Conrad Levinson had died at the age of 80 after a two and a half year battle with bone marrow cancer.

Jay was a Giant of the marketing world. In the 1960s he was an old-fashioned Ad Man. As an executive at Leo Burnett and later J Walter Thompson, he brought us Tony the Tiger, Snap Crackle and Pop, the Marlboro Man and many other mythical characters.

In the 1970s he turned his back on corporate life and moved to California where he split his time between writing and teaching at the UCL at Berkeley. It was whilst teaching at UCL in the 1980s that Jay developed the concept of Guerrilla Marketing to help small businesses and entrepreneurs to compete against the corporate giants. Jay was fond of saying that “Guerrilla marketers do not rely on the brute force of an outsized marketing budget. Instead, they rely on the brute force of a vivid imagination.”

His students at Berkeley included the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Larry Ellison.

I was fortunate enough to hear Jay speak a number of years ago and he told one of his favourite stories. When he was working at an advertising agency in Chicago, his team was called to the New York offices of the big tobacco company, Philip Morris. This was in the days before the health impacts of smoking were widely known and tobacco advertising was unrestricted.

Philip Morris was dismayed by the fact that one of their brands, Marlboro, was ranked 31st in America and smoked mainly by women. They asked Jay and his team to do something about it. The team flew back to Chicago and immediately dispatched two photographers to a ranch in West Texas owned by a friend of the agency’s art director. The photographers took lots of pictures of real cowboys at work in beautiful scenery. No poses. While the photographers were doing their thing the creative team came up with two strap lines “Come to Marlboro Country” and “Where the flavour is.” When the photographers returned the creative team put it all together and flew back to New York to present their work to the brand group at Philip Morris. The clients loved it and invested $18 million in the campaign in the first year. Marlboro man was everywhere: on radio and TV, in newspapers and magazines, on signs and billboards, all over the place. In less than one year he became a cultural icon.

At the end of the first year, Jay and the team were summoned back to New York to hear how the campaign was going. They were, of course, expecting congratulations, pats on the back and high-fives all round. They must’ve been a little shocked to discover that, after a year in which their client has invested $18 million in advertising (this was the early 1960s, remember, when that was an awful lot of money) Marlboro was still the 31st selling cigarette brand in the US and still considered to be a ladies’ brand.

You would have thought that after apparently wasting so much money the client would have killed the campaign. But the chairman of Philip Morris took a different view. He understood that it would take time to turn the brand around and authorised the campaign to continue.

Today Marlboro is the number one selling cigarette brand in America. In fact, it’s the most popular cigarette brand in the world. But nothing has changed in the marketing or advertising since the first campaign. It’s still “Come to Marlboro country” and “Come to where the flavour is.”

Jay used this story to illustrate an important lesson. When it comes to marketing, commitment is essential. All too often businesses embark on marketing campaigns and give up if they don’t see results within the first few weeks. They then move onto something else and drop that when it doesn’t seem to be working. But in order to build a successful marketing campaign you need consistency and commitment.

Philip Morris were very fortunate in being able to risk £18m to build the Marlboro brand. Most of us don’t have that kind of money. So what should we do? One thing we shouldn’t do is bet the farm on our latest marketing strategy working out. Much better to try out an idea in a small way first to see if it works. To use an analogy from ordinary life, if you’re going to redecorate your living room, you wouldn’t normally buy a 5 litre can of paint straight off. You’d start by buying a couple of small tester pots to see which colour worked best. It’s the same with marketing. Try your ideas out in a small way before you commit massive resources.

There are lots of ways you can do this. You can test different advertising headlines for by placing a series of small ads with just the headline and a telephone number. You can use Google Ad Words to see how people are looking for your particular product or service on the internet. You could send out a mass flyer campaign asking people who are interested to contact you for an information pack.

Once you’ve done your test, look at how much it’s cost you and how much new business it’s brought in. You will then be able to work out your return on investment. Assuming it’s sufficiently attractive, it’s then safe to commit as much money as you can afford. So at that point be bold and don’t hold back.  Or you’ll be leaving money on the table for your competitors to sweep up.

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