Chapter 15: Undercover Marketing

Posted on April 14, 2020 | Updated on January 8, 2021

Undercover marketing is also called stealth marketing and buzz. It is a sort of hidden, secretive strategy. Consumers don’t realize it’s a marketing effort, so the hope is that users talk and don’t notice it’s a campaign. It allows you to introduce a product to consumers without it looking like you’re promoting the item. 

Around 39% of marketers turn to analytics to help them make decisions about where to spend advertising dollars. Undercover marketing is one place you can focus your budget and experiment a bit with branding. In this part of our Small Business Marketing Guide, we’ll delve into the ins and outs of undercover marketing. Learn how you can use your promotional money strategically and stealthily. Here’s what you need to know about creating a buzz. 

Benefits of Undercover Marketing

Undercover marketing is one of the more creative types of advertising. You may feel a bit uncertain implementing something harder to track than a social media method. However, there are some stark advantages, such as:

  • The costs associated with undercover marketing are meager. You may tap into a few influencers and regular customers, but you won’t spend much on ads.
  • Word-of-mouth builds your audience exponentially. As more people share information about your product, you reach all their friends and followers.
  • Generate some buzz before launching your traditional advertising campaign. A stealth approach, combined with more established methods, reaches more people than one or the other used alone. 
  • Use a stealth website to create a comfort zone for the consumer. They can gather information without feeling pressure to buy. 

You may find creating buzz doesn’t help sales as much as some other methods. Where the advantage lies is in building name recognition. 

How Does Undercover Marketing Work?

Many different marketing methods are available for businesses to try. Undercover marketing is a bit unique in that it often precedes the release of a new product campaign. It can work in conjunction with other means of getting the word out, transitioning into a full-on advertising effort. The word “stealth” is often associated with this type of marketing. At the same time, though, you have to be careful not to make people feel you tricked them. You need to find a balance between making the promotions organic and being upfront about your efforts. One fundamental way to get people buzzing is by offering them the opportunity to try your product. Send out freebies to influencers and top customers. Ask them to share the info with others if they like what you sent. 

See Undercover Marketing in Action

People are over traditional marketing methods. Think about how many times a day the average consumer sees an ad or hears a radio commercial. As a society, we’re overwhelmed with organizations trying to sell us stuff. Then, there are the brands that get so creative with it that we sit up and take notice. Here are a few examples of undercover marketing you can learn from. 

Product Placement

Placing products where people will see and subliminally want to try them isn’t anything new. Even as far back as the movie “E.T.,” advertisers put Reese’s Pieces and other brands in films and television shows. You’ve perhaps noticed this when it isn’t as subtle as it should be. In the movie, advertisers use Reese’s Pieces as Elliot attempts to attract the extraterrestrial with candy. In the film “Castaway” with Tom Hanks, a FedEx delivery plays a crucial role in helping Hanks keep his sanity. You can use this method in an online video or at an event. For example, if you sell craft beer, you might offer coasters with your company logo to bars during a holiday. Putting items where consumers flock to gets your brand name in front of your target audience. 

Street Teams

Another method of undercover marketing is hiring street teams to talk up your product. Recording artists have used this technique for years. However, it’s open to any type of business. You put your product in their hands first and ask them to tell others about it. Sometimes, they take the chatter to an actual physical location. Your street team can also create buzz online, such as influencers on social media. Sony Ericsson’s Fake Tourism campaign was a unique stealth marketing attempt. They put faux tourists out on the streets in popular vacation spots. They asked people to take photos using the phone, which resulted in people asking what the device was. Then, the “tourist” explained the features. 

Fake Controversy

Another way to get buzz going is to start a rumor that people hate your product or have some issues. In reality, people don’t, and many will come to your defense. Be careful with this tactic, though, as it can backfire. Make sure the complaint is something minor. Starbucks created controversy around their holiday mug back in 2015 that stormed social media. Some people called for a boycott of Starbucks over the cup. Others, however, pointed out there wasn’t anything offensive about it, and they didn’t understand the concern. One thing is certain, news outlets and people everywhere were talking about Starbucks. 

Tips for Your Campaign

The examples above are just a few ways you can deploy undercover marketing. As you start your stealth campaigns, keep these points in mind:

  • Don’t be underhanded. One company launched a campaign where they had young girls flirt with men in bars, which is extremely deceptive.
  • Think about where your typical customer hangs out and brainstorm ways to reach those people.
  • If one buzz doesn’t take hold, try something different. Some campaigns are more effective than others.
  • Watch what your competitors do for their promotions and repeat anything successful without copying. 

An Add-On to Other Strategies

Undercover marketing is an add-on you can use with methods you’re already using. You shouldn’t suspend other campaigns, but throw this into the mix so that you can reach more people.  

CHAPTER 14: Diversity Marketing       CHAPTER 16: Cause Marketing


The Small Business Marketing Guide: Introduction

Chapter 1: Successful Viral Marketing Campaigns
Chapter 2: Influencer Marketing
Chapter 3: Conversational Marketing
Chapter 4: CMS Marketing
Chapter 5: Brand Marketing
Chapter 6: Scarcity Marketing
Chapter 7: Transactional Marketing
Chapter 8: FOMO Marketing
Chapter 9: Neuromarketing
Chapter 10: Close Range Marketing
Chapter 11: Guerrilla Marketing
Chapter 12: Word-of-Mouth Marketing
Chapter 13: Target Marketing
Chapter 14: Diversity Marketing
Chapter 15: Undercover Marketing
Chapter 16: Cause Marketing

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About The Author

Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her exploring the outdoors with her husband and dog in their RV, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or curled up with a good book with her cats Gem and Cali.

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