The 3 Design Principles for Successful Guerrilla Communications

Thinking Aloud

Daring to communicate across divides births possibility.

Last week I posted a brief overview of the four approaches to guerrilla communications at work in the world. Today I finish my overview of guerrilla communications by suggesting 3 design principles behind successful guerrilla/viral communication campaigns - not counting luck and randomness (eg. the sneezing baby panda is the top 9 youtube video in the planet as of today. There's no designing for that) 

Can you add/correct/refine the ideas or invite me to a mango lassie with pistachio nuts?

Ismael Velasco

Founder and CEO


For every successful guerrilla communications campaign, there are on average 125 well meaning flops. I just made that up, but I'm willing to bet my jalapeños that you'll never find out. 

There are 3 elements to a guerrilla campaign, distinguishing between them is at the heart of achieving both, coherence, and contagion:
If you keep your Cause at the forefront of your concept, and articulate a message that all your team agrees expresses your cause perfectly, and then come up with a guerrilla activity that you all love, but which those who have little or no current connection to your cause or message have no interest in, in the best of cases you will win them over to your cause, they might even tell their friends, but your guerrilla campaign will not take off, in the sense of being true to the Biblical command: "go forth and multiply!"

There is, I think it is safe to say, no magic bullet for a successful guerrilla communications campaign though I hear the Pentagon has just hired J.K. Rowling as a research contractor (I hear wrong). But I have come up with three design principles that seem to be part of successful guerrilla communications, and which will underpin the Adora Foundation's innovation programme in this area in the coming year.

Design Principle #1 Understand the building blocks of a successful campaign

C3PO says: "If it does not include three courses, Master Luke, it's not a proper meal"

Your Cause: what motivates you, what expresses your most pressing values, what defines your hopes.

Your message: The core idea you want to transmit, which articulates your Cause in a way that speaks to and even influences your target audience's values, needs and aspirations.

Your guerrilla activity: The image or activity which you hope will generate social contagion, replicating and mutating while staying anchored in your message and hence connecting people to your cause.

Guerrilla Campaign Design Principle #2: Design your communication concept always starting from your Cause never from your cool activity.

Yoda says, "use the Cause: with your starter, begin"

For the successful guerrilla communicator the most important thing of all is not the message, it's the Cause. The Cause births the message and the message gives meaning to the guerrilla activity which is destined for viral explosion.

If your message does not point people to your Cause, it will point them to some cause that is not yours, and if it carries your audience, it will carry them to the wrong address. When your fiendishly clever and über cool guerrilla activity does not express your cause, your activity may become a great message multiplier - but not your message.

Imagine your campaign goes viral and a million people waltz in polka dot bikinis like you did, but they fail to grasp that you wanted them to boycott linen shirts produced by overslept Icelandic leprechauns: your communication campaign will be widldly, successfully ineffective.

Thus the sequence of Cause -> message -> guerrilla activity is what gives coherence to a guerrilla campaign concept. Straying from this route risks turning your guerrilla campaign into a lost cause. Every so often you bump into one of these poor wee things in London asking for directions and looking forlorn.

Guerrilla Campaign Design Principle #3: Design your guerrilla communication activities always start from what your audience would enjoy regardless of your Cause!

Darth Vader says (or breathes heavily): "Forget the Cause: let's paaaaarty!"

In guerrilla communication campaigns, unlike more traditional marketing campaigns, getting the right message to the right audience, as marketing expert Winston Churchill put it, "is not the end, it is not the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." Your audience has not just to be won over by your message, but enchanted and energised enough to really want to recreate it, even reinvent it, faithfully and contagiously. And for this you need (or at least it helps!) to design your guerrilla campaign from activities that people would still want to engage with because they are empowering. enriching or just plain fun, regardless of your Cause, be it Coca Cola or its opponents in the anti-globalisation movement

For a good example, check out these two guerrilla campaign stunts respectively for and againstApple. One celebrates its inclusiveness, the other exposes its massive tax avoidance. You can imagine most people, particularly the not passionately committed, enjoying both campaigns in their own right, regardless of their goal.

Since both were equally compelling, they have both persuaded me, and I now believe that you can be as strange as you want in an Apple store and still be served, as long as there's a good chance of tax-free profits at the end of the day. The point is that in both cases, the actual activity has an appeal that goes beyond both the commercial and the political cause: in this case it is comedy value. You will giggle the same whatever your political persuasion.