The last thing any person consuming an ice cream bar would anticipate is probably that the wooden stick turns out to be Colgate’s emulated toothbrush. It is the essence of undercover marketing, where brand awareness takes place in a way most unexpected by the consumers.
Be it product placement in movies or shows, or influencers and celebrities being paid to spark buzz about a product casually, customers barely notice these subtle tricks of undercover marketing, a technique towards which more and more companies are inclining nowadays.
What Is Undercover Marketing?
Undercover marketing or stealth marketing is a marketing strategy where a company markets their product in a subtle and ‘hidden’ way, such that the consumers don’t realise that it is a marketing ploy.
It refers to marketing and advertising products in a less obvious manner, using unconventional tactics. It is in line with the idiom “flying under the radar”. It influences consumer decisions without tipping them off the manipulation.
Undercover marketing is considered to be a subset of guerrilla marketing.
For instance, before the release of the movie ‘King Kong’, a stealth marketing campaign was unleashed wherein giant King Kong footprints were made on sandy beaches. This spectacle for the public attracted many people to take photos and post about it on social media. This created a buzz and excitement for the movie release.
Undercover Marketing Strategies
Businesses usually employ four undercover marketing strategies to stand out of the crowd. These are
- Ad Spies: Brands usually pay influencers to surreptitiously pitch its products to their followers without showing that it’s a paid gig.
- Product placement: It involves featuring a product in a movie or show or other forms of mass media.
- Buzz Marketing: This technique aims to make the target audience more receptive by making people talk about a product in a casual way to create a buzz in the market.
- Celebrity endorsements: It helps advertise a product when public figures or social media personalities casually mention the product in organic conversations.
- Social Validation: Posting positive reviews for the company on different industry websites or ghostwriting a blog citing the company’s success stories.
Examples Of Undercover Marketing
Stealth marketing isn’t new. It’s just not well known among the customers because it capitalises on that fact. Here are some of the most creative and innovative examples of stealth marketing strategies.
Product placement and stirring up fake controversies are ways Starbucks used to employ stealth marketing. There was a blooper of the enormously popular TV show ‘Game of thrones’ in which a Starbucks cup was evidently left on the table in one of the scenes. This helped it gain publicity and captured the attention of viewers all over the world. Starbucks also stirred up a fake controversy in 2015 about a Christmas cup which the consumers hated and wanted off the shelves. This tactic made the cup popular and raised the sales of the same.
Axe body spray made minute modifications to a common exit sign by adding customised stickers of women figures of the same kind chasing the man figure. This idea was in line with the brand’s idea of men becoming irresistible to women.
A couple wrote a blog, chronicling adventures in different Walmarts throughout the United States in 2006. The blog was very well received by the public and gained an enormous following. However, it lost its charm when it was publicised that Walmart itself sponsored it.
Blackberry executives launched an undercover marketing campaign which involved marketing their products in an unorthodox fashion wherein young women took to the city streets and asked random men to enter their phone numbers in their blackberry phones and promised to give them a call later. This was done in order to create a buzz about the new blackberry phone models to increase their sales.
Advantages Of Undercover Marketing
Executing a successful undercover marketing campaign can be difficult to pull off. However, if done, it can help in the following ways:
- Increases brand reach: It helps reach out to customers who are otherwise cynical of traditional advertising strategies. Since they don’t realise that it is a stealth marketing move, it becomes difficult for them to avoid it.
- Creates a pre-launch buzz: Generating a buzz that makes their product go viral and more talked about makes people more aware of it even at grassroots levels. It helps grab people’s attention and leads to raised initial waves of sales.
- Saves money: Although these marketing strategies take more creative planning efforts, the company does not have to incur high costs for them. They help avoid any unnecessary expenditures and do not require a lot of equipment or manpower.
- Identification of potentially interested customers: Stealth marketing helps marketers identify a specific segmented target audience with the highest potential of catering and showcasing their products. It also gives the customers the feeling that they have ‘discovered’ a product or service which is of great value to them and instils in them a desire to purchase the product.
Disadvantages Of Undercover Marketing
Undercover marketing is a double edged sword and any company should keep in mind the following potential pitfalls that using undercover marketing strategies might lead to:
- Ethical dilemma: When consumers do not realise they are being marketed, they do not get an opportunity to opt out. This deceptive nature makes undercover marketing ethically dubious.
- Damaging the brand image: The strategies might boomerang the brand and this backlash might lead to turning off potential customers from using the brand completely. For instance, Sony’s campaign promoting its PSP console took quite an ugly turn in 2006 after it was brought to light that the enthusiastic fan videos were made by a paid actor.
- Legal risks: Undercover marketing gives rise to the possibility of dabbling into marketing strategies which are forbidden by the law.
- Potential of losing credibility: Using stealth marketing moves raises an issue of trust between the consumers and marketers. Some people see it as customer manipulation through dishonest means.
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An economics aficionado and a researcher at heart, Shrishti has also worked as a consultant to assist startups and NGOs in varied verticals. When not working, she is a passionate dancer and painter.