Peter McNeile, Director of Sponsorship for Cheltenham Racecourse, discusses the use of guerrilla marketing in sport and whether left-field tactics can sometimes work against you...
Guerrilla or Gorilla – when do marketing tactics become counterproductive?
It’s nearly thirty years since the term “guerrilla marketing” was first coined, and tactics have changed since then. Today, flashmobs are filmed and broadcast on TV as advertising content, demonstrating that guerrilla marketing has come far from its roots as an option for SME’s on small budgets. It is a mainstream marketing strategy for even the biggest brands.
Reflecting on the recent Cheltenham Festival, it is interesting to see what different brands do to achieve cut-through. There is huge competition for coveted sponsorship deals at such a high-profile event and inevitably not every brand can be accommodated. In this respect, The Festival typifies the competitive environment where guerrilla marketing can be highly effective.
Betting companies offer a good case study. Ladbrokes has two betting shop concessions at Cheltenham Racecourse, Betfred has three and other brands – like William Hill – sponsor specific events or races, too. Yet betting companies vie for the attention – and spend – of racegoers long before they arrive at the racecourse.
William Hill bought billboard advertising space at Cheltenham train station, so it was the first betting brand seen by racegoers as they stepped off the train. Leaving the station, racegoers will have come across a pub re-branded as the “Betfair Arms”. Passing by the park, they will have seen blue balloons rise into the air, promoting Blue Square.
We could call these tactics guerrilla marketing, yet these brands know that it is important that brands do not infringe upon our ability to protect the rights of organisations who pay to be officially associated with an event. Typically, the brands we work with are keen to strike a balance. Yes, they want to gain cut-through for their own brand. They will be creative and disruptive, but they will not trespass upon the rights of our official sponsors. They keep their distance and deploy their tactics within Cheltenham town, not at the racecourse, because they would not want another brand to turn the tables and spoil their official sponsorship of a different event.
In addition, the safety of horses, jockeys and spectators is paramount and everything at Cheltenham – including the siting of marketing activities - is organised to optimise safety and reduce risk. We work hard to ensure that horses are not distracted by anything superfluous or unexpected within their line of sight as they go around the course. The last thing anyone wants to see at a racecourse is a seriously injured or dead horse or jockey, so we prefer to know what brands have planned in case there is an impact on safety.
In my opinion, guerrilla marketing can easily turn into gorilla marketing, destroying value instead of creating it, if that convention is ignored. If a brand’s guerrilla tactics at a racecourse create a disturbance that results in injury or death, how can that create positive or fun associations for the brand?
Similarly, if a brand pays to have exclusive rights and they are not protected, that brand may not be prepared to underwrite the event in the future. Other brands won’t step into fill the breach if they believe their rights won’t be protected, either. If brands pull out, funding is reduced, prize money falls and the horses, trainers, owners and jockeys that make the event what it is may also fall away. That inevitably will have an impact on audiences. Eventually, the brand which has used guerrilla marketing to try to build value for its own brand at the expense of other brands officially associated with the event, will find that it has destroyed the value of the event for itself, too, when there are fewer people to witness their stunts.
I have no problem with brands trying out different strategies away from the racecourse. I do wonder what more we can do to protect the rights of existing sponsors when our venue is so open. I wonder whether we should establish formal protocols for brands that want to undertake marketing around Cheltenham, so they do not transgress the nature of the events or impact the safety of horses or jockeys. I’m interested in hearing about any strategies that work for other venues.
As a marketer, I understand the desire to build a brand. I do not want to stifle creativity. But marketers need to consider whether their activities make them Guerrillas who are creating brand value in a positive way or Gorillas who just seek to undermine the value of events and official partnerships for their own short term profit – and to the long-term peril of everyone involved.