‘I’ve never had a ROAS like this’: Brands get scrappy with flyers, road trips & other guerrilla marketing tactics

This story is part of a week-long editorial series in which Modern Retail breaks down how businesses are getting scrappy with building their brands. More from the series →

Brands are under mounting pressure to get creative with their marketing dollars as customer acquisition costs skyrocket. And some are finding that it pays to be scrappy.

Fulton, an insoles brand, has experimented with tactics like tracing stencils on the sidewalk outside of popular stores. The brand once hired someone off of Craigslist to put up flyers, then saw its organic traffic double, co-founder Libie Motchan told Modern Retail. Elix, a menstrual wellness brand, plastered out-of-home ads across New York City shortly before the pandemic and traced a million impressions back to the campaign, founder Lulu Ge said. And Blume, which makes superfood latte powder and gut health products, spent $3,200 on 1,500 residential mailers that eventually generated $160,000 in sales.

“I’ve never had a ROAS like this before,” Blume founder Karen Danudjaja told Modern Retail.

For years, the internet made it easier for retailers and brands to put messages in front of potential customers. After the iOS 14 update made ad tracking more difficult, companies now have to shell out more money than ever before — often hundreds of thousands of dollars — on platforms like Meta to get a worthwhile number of impressions. As a workaround, more brands are turning to so-called “guerrilla marketing” — marketing strategies that are unconventional and low-cost — to get the word out about their products. The term was popularized by the American writer Jay Conrad Levinson in his 1984 book “Guerrilla Marketing.”

Guerrilla marketing typically involves flyers, posters or other “do-it-yourself” methods that cost a fraction of digital ads. Because of that, guerrilla marketing can be a huge help to nascent brands with tight budgets. For instance, not long after it launched in 2021, Fulton printed out flyers for free at a WeWork, then hired several people off of Craigslist to post them to poles in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Fulton’s flyers said, “Foot pain?” and had tear-off tabs that listed the domain Shoessuck.com, which redirected to Fulton’s website. The campaign was picked up by Instagrammer New York Nico, and Fulton saw its sales soar. “[The flyer] contributed to 10% of our revenue for the month that it was up,” Motchan said.

The next year, Fulton had stencils made of the messages “Shoessuck.com” and “Watch your step,” then spray-painted them on the streets of New York City. Fulton was methodical in where it placed the stencils, choosing places like the sidewalk in front of Nike and Allbirds stores. In 2023, Fulton hired several people to stand outside of Nike, Allbirds and Birkenstock stores and pass out postcards to those going inside. One postcard, as seen in a TikTok, said, “Those shoes look cool but they’re bad for your body.”

Fulton also recently worked with an agency for an out-of-home campaign that involved gluing messages to the sides of trash cans. One cheekily said, “Your shoes are trash.” Now, the brand is brainstorming new marketing tactics for the summer. One plan involves Motchan’s friend, a comedian, walking around New York in a foot onesie and doing “man-on-the-street” interviews around foot pain.

Taking guerrilla marketing on the road

August, a period-care brand, is also folding in-person interactions into its marketing plans. This spring, its co-founder Nadya Okamoto embarked on a cross-country road trip to visit Targets across the United States. August, once a DTC-only brand, launched in Target in spring 2023 and sells nine SKUs there, including a variety pack of pads and tampons.

Okamoto, who got the idea for a tour when helping her sister move across the country, drove two to five hours a day to stop in more than 20 cities in May and June. During that time, Okamoto documented her tour via TikTok videos, held focus groups with Target shoppers, handed out coupons and met with lawmakers and advocacy groups about eliminating the tax some U.S. states enact on menstrual products. Okamoto planned her tour around August’s biggest markets and where customers had requested she visit. The majority of stops were in the South, in cities such as Atlanta, Dallas and Little Rock, Arkansas.

“We’ve seen a lot of influencer marketing and large content trips in this industry, which we just can’t afford,” Okamoto told Modern Retail during a stopover in Williams, Arizona. “We can’t compete on that level. But what I can do is I can offer my time, body, money and energy. And so that’s what this trip is.”

The tour has given Okamoto a better sense of what customers think about the brand. It’s also helped boost awareness and sales. “I get a weekly report from our team, and it says, ‘This week, the top five stores were this and the bottom five stores were this,'” Okamoto said. “We see that when I go to a state, the numbers will bump there.”

Much of August’s tour involves social media. In contrast, Blume, the superlatte and gut health brand, is getting more into direct mail. In April, Blume sent out mailers called “Blume Digest” that included articles from ambassadors and product descriptions. Blume sent the digest to targeted groups such as people who hadn’t placed an order in six months or people who had abandoned their online carts.

Blume plans to do another direct mailer in July, this time with samples for its SuperBelly product. This next mailer will cost a bit more, around $4.50 a unit compared to $2.13, but “it’s still way less than what you would typically acquire a customer for if you’re paying for digital ads,” Danudjaja said. According to the Business of Apps, Facebook’s CPM hit $14 in 2023, while Google’s shot up to $10.50.

Compared to costly or time-consuming in-store demos, mailers are less complicated, Danudjaja said. “They’re something where you can fully control the experience — all you need is an address list, and it’s infinitely scalable.”

A less restrictive approach to marketing

Haven’s Kitchen, which sells sauces in squeezable pouches, is also investing in more around traditional print media. In June, to advertise its aioli that launched in select Whole Foods, Haven’s Kitchen spent $2,000 on wheatpasting — a process that involves adhering posters and notices to the sides of buildings or sidewalk sheds by using a mixture of flour/starch and water. Haven’s Kitchen put up the wheatpasted ads on the streets of New York City, within two blocks of a Whole Foods location.

Haven’s Kitchen first launched with a line of refrigerated sauces in 2020. At the time, the brand mostly focused on bottom-of-the-funnel marketing, founder Alison Cayne told Modern Retail. Now, with its aioli, Haven’s Kitchen is keen to experiment in a way it didn’t before. “We feel a little bit looser with it,” Cayne said. “The channels that we can play in, both in sales and marketing, are just a little bit less restrictive.”

Haven’s Kitchen’s wheatpasted ads are large and colorful, with a message mentioning Whole Foods and an image of a QR code to buy the product on Amazon for those who are on the run. The ads don’t stay up forever, Cayne acknowledged. “They’re covered up almost within a day or two by somebody else,” she said. But, Cayne said, the ads are one interaction in the “rule of seven” — the idea that it takes someone seven instances of seeing a brand’s message to actually make a purchase.

That “rule of seven” becomes even more important when taking into account Haven’s Kitchen’s larger strategy at the moment: expanding its Whole Foods distribution beyond the Northeast and Florida. “It’s really important that we come out of the gate in those regions super strong and that our velocity is cranking, so that when there is a review, we can ideally go global,” Cayne said.

The goal for many of these brands experimenting with guerrilla marketing tactics is not only to acquire customers more effectively, but also to stand out at a time when people are likely bombarded with digital ads.

Ge, the founder of Elix, said she wanted to “stop people in their tracks” with her wheatpasted ads. Elix, which sells personalized herbal treatments for women’s hormonal health, ran flyers around New York City with statistics about women’s health. One poster highlighted how many hours of productivity are lost annually in the U.S. from menstrual pain — which amounts to more than 1 million annually, Elix claims.

“I see so many product or editorial campaigns throughout the city that I wonder whether [a message] could easily get lost if there isn’t a surprising stat,” Ge said.

For many founders, the appeal of guerrilla marketing also lies in the fact that they get to let their creativity shine. It forces them to think more critically about what tactics will truly capture someone’s attention. Sometimes, these tactics can have more of a lasting impact than Meta or TikTok ads. Fulton’s Motchan said that some customers buy from the brand a year after seeing a poster.

“It’s actually so validating,” Blume’s Danudjaja said, “to hear that other brands are also trying to find unique ways to cut through the noise.”