If you are travelling on the Tube in the next few days and your journey is interrupted by the sound of fellow passengers loudly extolling the virtues of the capital's newest freesheet, thelondonpaper, you might be forgiven for being suspicious.
For the vocal travellers might well be part of a ‘sneeze', ‘whisper' or ‘roach marketing' campaign (there is disagreement as to the term) being conducted by Frank PR's experiential marketing offshoot Sneeze (PRWeek, 1 September).
The idea of using actors to shout about your brand in public places is nothing new - roach campaigns have been around since the marketing community began seriously investigating the power of word-of-mouth recommendations around the turn of the millennium.
A couple of prominent Harvard Business Review articles and the emergence of dedicated experts at Yale, which now has a word-of-mouth research section on its website, was enough to convince many in the PR community that covert generation of product hype was effective.
Ideal for certain brands
Many consumer agencies have tried such campaigns, and for some, the idea remains an appealing option.
‘For fashion brands and for building trends and interest this is a valuable way of attracting an audience,' says Andrew Reynolds, head of business at Cunning Communications. ‘If used subtly, as part of a broader strategy, it can be very successful.'
Such campaigns have been successful in the past. In 2002, Jackie Cooper PR drafted in ebullient thespians to talk up the services of then client O2 in hostelries near Arsenal Football Club (which O2 sponsors) on matchdays.
JCPR co-founder Robert Phillips says: ‘It was measurable as we followed the take-up of O2 offers. It worked as a slightly more intelligent way of delivering a brand message than using promotional staff.'
But Phillips believes the marketing landscape has changed significantly of late, and that savvy consumers now want transparency and partnerships from brands, rather than clever subterfuge. ‘I wouldn't go back to it now,' he says. ‘I think those techniques would struggle to reach the same number of consumers as online activity does.'
Phillips' views are echoed by Larry Franks, MD at Borkowski PR. He says: ‘Consumer marketing is all about online communities now. The feeling is that "community" is more authentic and these types of guerrilla campaigns are frowned upon.'
Franks recalls hiring students to promote theatre shows and films ‘very successfully' around eight years ago, but now dismisses the practice as somewhat passé.
But Damon Statt, creative director at the aptly titled Sneeze, believes there are a number of agencies practising covert PR techniques whose successes go unnoticed by consumers.
‘I've heard of taxi drivers being used,' says Statt, who is an established specialist in such techniques, having formerly been head of guerrilla marketing at Revolver Communications. He explains: ‘A customer jumps into the cab and then the driver will bring up whichever subject he's been instructed to talk about.'
Statt reveals that Sneeze retains a list of actors that he turns to for product launches or rebranding jobs that could benefit from covert word-of-mouth. He jokes: ‘There's plenty of out-of-work actors around.'
Reynolds agrees with Statt that such marketing techniques are worth serious consideration by brands. He says: ‘Cool brands need to create hype. As an enabler in that sense, this sort of marketing has a place.'
But Reynolds - along with all the PROs consulted by PRWeek for this piece - advises caution. Should the campaign be found out, he claims, and the consequences could be ruinous.
When sneezing backfires
Martin Ballantine, a former colleague of Statt's at Revolver, recalls a mobile phone company working in New York City's Times Square losing credibility as quickly as it had gained it when its plan was uncovered by local journalists. The move, dubbed ‘fake tourist', was panned online.
‘I'm not a massive fan of doing things in this secret way because of the risk involved,' says Ballantine. ‘The problem comes when staff begin to think that they're Jack Bauer from 24 - they get carried away.'
But the practice continues, largely unnoticed, and Statt firmly believes that this is because it is successful.‘It is not suitable for all brands, but you have got to ask what you can do differently for each,' he says. ‘Such activity is just one part of experiential marketing.'
Statt's techniques have included creating a giant ‘floral carpet' in Trafalgar Square to promote Loire Valley Wines. He has also used ‘rip-and-run' media, in which layers of weatherproof posters are placed in certain locations in the hope they will be stolen and put up in daring teenagers' bedrooms.
‘Sneeze marketing is all about expanding the talkability of a brand,' he argues. ‘Sometimes it is best to do that undercover.'
But PRWeek's research suggests that brands nowadays increasingly favour building hype through online communities, usually in an open fashion, rather than creating buzz via ‘sneezing'.
For believers such as Statt, the fact that sneeze marketing remains niche can only be a positive thing.