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Of cockroaches and marketing

Of cockroaches and marketing

Cockroaches aren’t dumb, say guerrilla marketing experts, adding that the insect’s qualities stand as a role model for smaller companies.

September 21, 2008 9:06 by

Adam Grundey

With the exception of right-wing militias obsessed with post-apocalyptic survival, it’s rare for the cockroach to be hailed as a role-model. But according to guerrilla sales expert Steve Savage, the insect’s fortitude and adaptability are exactly the kind of characteristics that companies – particularly small businesses – need to nurture in order to beat (or become) the fat cats with multi-million-dollar budgets.

Savage was recently in Dubai to co-present Tecom’s first “Guru Talk,” along with marketing legend Jay Conrad Levinson, the man who coined the term “guerrilla marketing” back in the early 1980s and went on to write numerous books on the subject. We caught up with the two gurus the day before their presentation to learn more about an increasingly misunderstood marketing genre, which Levinson originally invented specifically to help would-be ’roaches overcome their lack of capital to make the profits previously associated only with huge multinationals. (Nowadays, he says, those multinationals are just as likely to be using guerrilla tactics themselves. “It’s become the textbook.”)

Honesty is the best policy. There are numerous interpretations of the term, but guerrilla marketing is often associated with stealth marketing and other “sneaky” tactics that involve marketing without letting people know that you’re doing it. This, says Levinson, is not what it’s really all about.

I guess I’m the only one who can really define [guerrilla marketing],” he says. “But you definitely don’t have to lie; you don’t have to be dishonest. Guerrillas don’t do anything to offend the community or other people. You have an obligation not to do that. Stealth marketers don’t really think that way. When I see people act that way and then preach about how you should use guerrilla marketing, I congratulate them on their taste, but then I offer them some free consulting.”

There is, Levinson says, a concise way to summarize what guerrilla marketing really is, despite the fact that there are over 200 “weapons” which he recommends his clients consider for their marketing arsenal. “There’s a one-sentence definition,” he says, “which is: Going after conventional goals using unconventional means.”

The origins of the idea come from Levinson’s time as a lecturer at the University of Berkeley in California. “My students all loved the idea of having a business of their own,” he says. “But none of them had any money. So they asked me to recommend a book that would give them advice on how to market without money. And I gave the wrong answer: I said, ‘Sure.’”

Levinson discovered that there really weren’t any such books around. At the time, he was doing a lot of freelance consulting for new industries, such as solar energy and computing, and had helped many people in the same situation as his students. “So,” he explains, “I sat down and made this list of things I’d done for other people, that had worked. And the title of the paper was ‘527 ways to market without any money.’ Which was, obviously, a terrible title. So I went with ‘Guerrilla marketing.’”

Lousy title or not, those 527 original ideas helped his students found what are now some of the biggest companies in America, such as Apple.

More money, more time.
Levinson’s 200 guerrilla marketing weapons run the gamut from the way you and your employees say hello to potential customers to the copywriting in your print ads.

“Instead of investing money, you invest time, energy, imagination and information,” says Levinson. “It’s best to use a mix of traditional marketing and guerrilla marketing. But if you’re willing to invest those four things, you’ll find you have to invest less money – if any.

“The real goal of guerrilla marketing is profits,” he continues. “And I want people to realize you can get them without spending any money.”

“Instead of millions of dollars, you can spend thousands or hundreds of dollars,” says Savage. “It’s a way a small company can compete with a big company and grow.” And Savage should know. With Levinson’s help, his small catalogue company, which helped schools sell products to raise funds, grew from zero to $60 million in just six years, before Savage sold it to Colgate Palmolive. Little wonder, then, that Levinson describes him as “the gutsiest guerrilla I’ve ever met.”

As you’d expect from a veteran of 1960s California, who relishes recounting the tale of persuading his mother to try marijuana for the first time while playing her The Beatles’ White Album, Levinson had another goal besides money-making in mind when he began to formulate his guerrilla marketing plans: To reduce the time people spent at work.

“Guerrilla marketing is about balance too,” he says. “I’ve worked a three-day week since 1971. I work very hard on those three days, but I think it’s so important to have balance in your life, so you have time to do the things you love, rather than just going after the almighty dollar. Some people read my book and realized how much money they could make and started working a seven-day week. But they’re not guerrillas if they’re doing that. They’re just chasing money, there’s more to it than that.”

Right for the region? It’s a message that appears, on the surface, to be an awkward fit with the Middle East’s – and particularly Dubai’s – commercial culture, as does much of the advice that Levinson and Savage offer the “Guru Talk” audience. Empowering employees to make decisions; being honest about your company’s faults; offering friendly, efficient service; collaborating with other businesses rather than competing with them; relying more on grassroots campaigns and word-of-mouth recommendations than on big-budget TV and print ads; all of these are vital to the success of guerrillas, and all can be anathema to the patriarchs and decision makers of the kind of family-owned businesses that stand to benefit the most from Levinson’s and Savage’s methods. It’s understandable, Savage admits, that a Dubai radio DJ asked, “Do you really think guerrilla marketing can work in this region?”

The answer, he says, is yes.

“I’ve done a lot of work in Latin America, where many businesses are family-run companies just like they are here. I’ve changed the corporate culture of many companies there through guerrilla tactics,” he says. “You can make everyone into a guerrilla. Give them power to make decisions on the spot. If a customer wants to make a deal and the salesperson has to say, ‘Let me talk to my manager and I’ll get back to you in a week,’ that’s a traditional technique; it’s not a guerrilla technique. A guerrilla salesperson has the power to say, ‘Sure. I can make a deal with you.’ Then the customer’s happy because he’s dealing with a person who’s smart enough – and has the power – to make a decision.”

He concedes, however, that it can be an uphill battle to convince those in command to relinquish some of their power.

“You can’t do it with all of them,” Savage says. “You give this message to 100 companies; maybe 10 of them are going to get it. The other 90 will keep limping along in the same way. But the companies that get that message will thrive. It’ll work here. It works everywhere. It’s universal.”

Guerrillas in our midst. In fact, there are already signs that Dubai-based companies are embracing guerrilla tactics. Savage lauds the founders of fitness-training company Physical Advantage, Corey Oliver and Guillaume Mariole, as “genuine guerrilla entrepreneurs.”

The two men began personal training as a sideline to their jobs as cabin crew for a UAE-based airline. In August 2006, they decided to pool their life savings of 75,000 dirhams and set up Physical Advantage. Through some smart guerrilla-style thinking – such as collaborating with Puma, their eventual sponsors, at the Dubai Marathon, and inviting local journalists along to a free early-morning military-style Boot Camp on the beach – the business immediately took off and the future looked bright. Then disaster struck.

“We go along to open a bank account – trying to get things properly organized,” Mariole explains. “We take along our license, they look at it and go, ‘You can’t run a service off this license.’ We couldn’t believe it. We’d spent so much money on this license. We weren’t advised correctly by people we trusted at the time.”

A lot of people would have given up at that point. But Oliver and Mariole demonstrated cockroach-style resilience and pressed ahead with new focus. And endeared themselves to Levinson and Savage along the way.

“They could’ve been bitter, angry, sullen, enraged… But they had a guerrilla attitude,” says Savage. “They were confident. They said, ‘Let’s forget about that. Let’s not dwell on it, let’s keep moving forward.’”

“It was an expensive lesson,” Mariole admits. “But going through it has made us who we are today. We question everything now. We’re not just jumping in and trying everything. We were putting all our energy into all these other hair-brained ideas we had for cash cows – quick money. None of them took off. So finally we sat down and said, ‘Let’s just focus on Physical Advantage.’”

That was a vital step towards their present success, say Savage and Levinson.

“They’re very focused,” says Savage. “And that’s another guerrilla tactic: You do what you’re good at. You don’t get distracted.”

“The world is loaded with examples of successful companies who lost their focus,” Levinson points out. “It’s called corporate ego. They think, ‘We can do it in our field, we can do it anywhere.’ But they’re wrong. Coca-Cola said, ‘Our name means beverages. Let’s buy a winery.’ They lost $89 million, because, actually, ‘Coca-Cola’ means ‘Soft drinks.’”

Back on track.
Oliver and Mariole – perhaps more through necessity than design – used many guerrilla tactics to regain their lost capital. They are committed to delivering on their word, for one thing. A characteristic that, alone, differentiates them in Dubai’s hyperbolic commercial arena.

“We’re passionate about what we do. We don’t want to promise things and then not be able to provide,” says Mariole. “You’ve got to stick with your core competencies. The fitness market here is just blowing up. We personal-train a lot of chairmen and CEOs. The reason we started from the top was because it has a trickle-down effect throughout the company. It was a deliberate strategy. We’re very much about education as well. So it’s very important who we affiliate ourselves with.”

Physical Advantage now has corporate deals with several entities that are part of Dubai Holding, as well as with Lloyds Bank and others.

But the company’s major success story has been its Military Boot Camps. Oliver’s and Mariole’s grassroots, low-budget marketing campaigns have established them as the training of choice for Dubai’s discerning beefcake wannabes. From monthly press releases written by Oliver, in which he tries to focus on an unusual aspect of the business in order to ensure they get coverage; through the cheap but catchy flyers in Dubai’s supermarkets that proclaim “You’ll love to hate it;” to the “uniforms” that are handed out to Boot Camp participants which denote their rank – from plain “Soldier” (for beginners) to “Elite” – Physical Advantage’s marketing ticks all the right guerrilla boxes. Mariole cites the launch of their Dubai Marina Boot Camp as an example.

“Twelve of us went down in our uniforms at two o’clock in the afternoon when everyone was on the beach,” he says. “So here we are, walking along with our flyers; one whistle blast we all drop and count out 10 press-ups. Two whistle blasts and we all drop and count out 10 sit-ups. Three whistle blasts and everyone shouts out, ‘HUA!’ That’s one of the terms we use at Boot Camp, it means, ‘Heard, understood and acknowledged.’ It was awesome. It’s killing two birds with one stone. First of all, the mileage with this kind of strategy is that they’re all going to talk about it. And the other benefit is that we’re engaging our staff. It’s good corporate culture. It’s fun, interactive, breaks the monotony.”

The struggle to stay simple. Mariole’s example shows how big buzz can be generated for very little cost and through a very simple idea. It’s a perfect showcase for Levinson’s teachings.

“There are two keys to succeeding at guerrilla marketing,” Levinson says. “One is easy, one is very hard. The first one is: Start with a simple plan. It must be simple, because marketing intimidates most people. They think it’s complicated, and it doesn’t need to be. If you’ve got to sort through a book of documents to find your marketing plan, it’s not a guerrilla plan.” He recommends that companies draw up a seven-sentence marketing plan.

“The hard part – and this is where most people fall on their face – is that you must commit to that plan and take action,” he continues. And patience is vital. “If you’re expecting instant success, you’re going to be very, very depressed. Don’t change your plan. Stay with it.”

Self-belief, then, is crucial. If you have created a simple plan that you believe in, have the confidence to stand by it and act on it. And to create that plan, marketers should again turn to the cockroach as a role model, says Savage.

“Cockroaches aren’t dumb,” he says. “They have a penetrating intuition. They can survey the complexity of life and capture what is essential. They ignore everything else.”

The marketer as cockroach. It’s probably not the first time that analogy’s been used, but this time, it’s meant as a compliment.

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