The Future of Brand Marketing   //   March 12, 2024

The rise of proximity marketing: How brands use guerrilla tactics to get in on big pop culture moments

This story is part of a week-long editorial series where we dive into all the ways brand marketing has evolved. More from the series →

A standard 30-second Super Bowl commercial would have cost $7 million for dog food brand Ollie. Instead, the brand opted to run a charitable social media campaign around the big game called the “Supper Bowl Extravaganza” for a fraction of the cost.

“We’re not one of those brands that have a very large brand-only budget,” said Nicole Sumner, Ollie’s brand director. “My job is to think about what we can do that’s really organic, that doesn’t cost a lot of money but could get us into cultural conversations and create buzz for our brand.”

For Ollie’s campaign, the brand promised to donate a bowl of food to a dog in need for every share of its Supper Bowl post on Facebook and Instagram. During the campaign period, Jan. 31 to Feb. 11, Ollie saw an 84% increase in traffic from organic social compared to the previous year. Sumner said the company knew that its competitors would be spending big on traditional Super Bowl ads and wanted to take advantage of the organic search for dog food. One of its competitors, The Farmer’s Dog, ran a Super Bowl ad for the first time last year.

Participating in events like the Super Bowl or partnering with iconic franchises like Barbie usually comes with a hefty price tag that only larger brands can afford. But in recent years, more startups have found clever and scrappy ways to get in on the buzz, without spending a fortune on a splashy campaign. By putting up wild postings just outside of an area where a popular event is held, or running a pink-hued social media campaign that hints at “Barbie” without ever uttering the word, brands are still able to market themselves in proximity to these big pop culture moments. In doing so, brands can benefit from the eyeballs, SEO traffic and interest coming from these events.

There are multiple ways to approach proximity marketing. Much like Ollie, condiment brand Primal Kitchen also launched a campaign during the big game by deploying a digital billboard on the Las Vegas strip, the same city where the Super Bowl was held, and handing out free wings at a tailgate party in the city. Energy drink Gorgie, on the other hand, co-hosted a Barbie-themed event in Melrose Ave when the movie was trending last summer. 

Richard Hanna, professor of practice in the marketing division at Babson College, said this advertising playbook is akin to guerrilla marketing, a low-cost tactic to engage with people usually without formal permission from the main sponsors or franchise. He added that this tactic has become more popular as the cost of traditional advertising and official collaborations rises.

“At this point, only the big brands can afford a lot of these big types of advertisements,” Hanna said. “People won’t necessarily notice the difference when they’re not looking carefully. As a result, [brands] can capitalize on the wave of the trend.”

Brands can indeed benefit from jumping into the hype train. Primal Kitchen’s Vegas campaign in February primarily focused on promoting its buffalo sauce, a staple condiment during football games. Ana Goettsch, head of marketing at Primal Kitchen, said that the big game campaign gave the product “momentum.” Tailgate campaigns, which started in the fourth quarter of last year, led to a 40% sales increase in February compared to the same month last year for Primal Kitchen’s buffalo sauce. The Super Bowl campaign, then, helped build upon this momentum. She added that the company had given away all 10,000 wings it prepared for the tailgate. 

“The big game is something that every brand that’s in condiments wants to be a part of,” Goettsch said. “We just had to make sure we were following all the appropriate marketing and legal guidelines that were very sensitive around the time but we were able to do it in a really big way, both digitally and in person.”

Brands are prohibited from using the words “Super Bowl” or “Super Sunday” in their ads. They have to avoid using the NFL logo or team logos in their promotional materials. Brands also can’t use football players’ names.

A traditional 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl would have gotten roughly 123.4 million views. But Primal Kitchen’s Vegas strip billboard was still able to gain visibility thanks to the 65,000 people estimated to have attended the event in person. 

When Barbiecore started making a comeback last summer following the franchise’s live-action movie, energy drink brand Gorgie saw an opportunity to get in on the conversation, given that the brand’s cans are already pink. Gorgie founder and CEO Michelle Cordeiro Grant said that the main goal was to stay top of mind for customers while the Barbie trend was taking place.

When Taylor Swift’s The Eras Tour made its stop in California last summer, the company gave away free cans of Gorgie and friendship bracelets — a trend among Swifties — to fans lining up for the concert.

“In my mind, the key to marketing is thinking about the customer first and what their mindset is on,” Cordeiro Grant said.  “We just want to be in the mindset of where they are.”

This marketing strategy also yields digital traffic. Ollie said it set up its bidding strategy around keywords associated with the event itself and competitors that made significant investments during the Super Bowl. The company said it saw a 9% increase in conversions from organic social traffic compared to the previous year.

After the success it had during the Super Bowl season, Ollie is following it up with a campaign alluding to March Madness, called March Wagness. Much like the basketball event itself, March Wagness is a bracket-style competition where people can nominate their dog and vote for their favorite pup for a chance to win Ollie merchandise and products.

“We are predominantly a really strong digital brand,” Sumner said. “The vast majority of our budget is spent on performance marketing that can be really tightly attributed and optimized.”