You’re walking down a busy street to an appointment when you start to see them. Five or six twenty-somethings in matching red t-shirts with some consumer product company logo on the front. They’re handing out samples of . . . whatever. Mini shots of a new energy drink. A snazzy looking nail file branded with the logo of a new spa. Or, my favorite, squeeze toys that look like SpongeBob bearing the slogan “squeeze me”, which is also on the t-shirts. Maybe you stop, maybe you don’t, but you definitely learn about the product they’re hawking.
Street marketing, guerilla marketing; it goes by many names, but the concept is the same. A young, hip, and super-friendly group of “brand ambassadors” hits the streets with a cute hook and a product to show off. They’re smiling and engaging, and by deploying them at key areas marketers can blanket a city with buzz for relatively low cost.
In the beginning, when it was more novel, just about every brand ambassador you came across was a pleasure. Many were actors who were naturally very outgoing and personable.
When I ran Paint The Town Red / Global Events, we did a number of these projects for clients as part of broader event marketing initiatives. Every time we brought in specialists to manage and oversee the street teams. (I highly recommend the Michael Alan Group, authors of Guerilla Marketing for Dummies, and Encore Nationwide). But it seems so simple, that many event companies figure they can just wing it and pull their street teams together on their own when the need arises.
After all, how hard can it be? Turns out it’s actually harder than it looks.
Last week I was walking through Times Square when I saw the street team from hell. There were three of them on a corner wearing these turquoise t-shirts promoting a new type of hair care product (I’ll show mercy and not mention the brand by name). One woman is leaning against a street lamp smoking a cigarette. Another woman is so overweight her shirt can’t fit over her stomach, and you can see a roll of fat in the front and a dragon tattoo on her lower back. Yum.
The third one, a guy, has earrings in his nose, lower lip and eyebrows. I kid you not. And he’s the good one! He’s actually trying to hand out the product sample. He’s not really talking to anyone, mind you, but he is extending his arm. (Hey, if you happen to get close enough, he’ll actually give you the sample!) This was, hands down, the scariest street team I’d ever seen.
Is it difficult to pull a street team together? For the first couple of dozen brand ambassadors, maybe not. But when your client hires you to hit ten cities, you need a very deep bench, and you can’t check on all of them out in the field. The companies who are good at this stake their reputation on every single ambassador they send out. The ones who are winging it, well, not so much.
What’s amazing is that some leading companies who so obsessively guard how their brands are shown to the public wouldn’t want to pay top dollar for street teams introducing their products to the world. They can’t possibly monitor all of these ambassadors out in the field, so wouldn’t they want to have agencies with the best street team training and management protocols in place?
Though this street campaign had nothing to do with me, the professional event planner in me simply couldn’t just walk by. Hey, it was a black eye on our profession. I was wearing a suit and dark sunglasses, so I stopped in front of them and said, “Excuse me. I’m the VP of Marketing for (company who will remain nameless) and I am paying for this sampling campaign. Is this really the best you can do?” I couldn’t resist.
Smoker girl quickly stubbed out her cigarette on her heel, grabbed some product and walked toward pedestrians with a big smile. Jenny Craig immediately struggled to pull the shirt over her belly. And the pierced kid said “no, sir” (OK, being called “sir” freaked me out). He jumped up on the base of a street lamp and, PT Barnum style, began verbally teeing up takers from 20 yards away.
My work there was done.