Guerilla marketing and the law
By Aaron Broverman
Toronto’s Rise Espresso is a cafe based on local and organic principles.
Their coffee is fair trade and organic, they use organic dairy, all of their cups are compostable and they generally go the extra mile to minimize their impact on the earth. So, when the city threatened to slap them with a $1500 fine for defacing the sidewalks with a guerrilla marketing campaign, no one was more shocked than co-owner Alan Smith.
“Other small businesses have stickers or postcards that they put up around the neighbourhood just to get brand awareness. We looked at that and we said, ‘We don’t really like that. We don’t want to trash the city and pollute the city with all kinds of garbage.”
So, taking a page from The Toronto Maple Leafs, and the famous campaign that put their logo on sidewalks all across the downtown core, Rise hired a local street artist to paint eight arrows featuring the Rise logo that lead patrons within a two-block radius towards their location on Mutual St.
“It was really, really effective,” continues Smith. “People loved it. People were commenting on how nice the signs were and some people said, ‘Thank you for creating a classy campaign instead of a trash campaign.”
But the city didn’t find it very classy. Rise was given two-weeks to remove the water-soluble paint or they would be in violation of bylaw #1218-2011, which prohibits graffiti on any public or private property. But, as the arrows disappeared, Rise’s walk-in traffic was cut in half.
So, how does a small business engage in guerrilla marketing and raise brand awareness without brushing up against the law? Calum McGuigan, founder and president of Fervent Events, a Toronto-based guerrilla marketing company, has some answers.
“What I would say first and foremost, especially for independent places like that coffee shop, is you have to know your city. Every city has different bylaws, so don’t forego research. I would say to any business that’s about to do a guerilla marketing campaign, ‘Spend a few hours online, see what has been done, what hasn’t been done, what’s legal, what’s not. If you’re unsure, phone the city’s Licenses and Standards Division or a property group, if you want to do something on private property, like Dundas Square, who’d want to charge you a permit fee. I would never hesitate to pick up the phone and protect yourself.”
In fact, due to the need to stay legal, McGuigan says many of these seemingly authentic events and happenings are probably more experiential marketing than guerilla marketing thanks to the no doubt weeks of planning and city approval needed to pull them off. “To do a one day activation at Toronto’s Union Station costs $4,000. If you don’t pay the fee and are there without a permit, you’re going get caught in 30 minutes,” he says.
But what if you’re small time like Rise Expresso and don’t have the money to pay the $4,000 permit for Union Station or the $5,500 it takes to use Dundas Square?
“Whatever you’re doing, you want it to be space conscious and flexible. You want to show an intent that is temporary, so if you’re doing graffiti on the sidewalk, even if you’re using water-soluble paint, the city wouldn’t have known that. As long as something is mobile, I think that will be taken into consideration,” continues McGuigan.
Businesses also don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to their campaigns. McGuigan recommends never postering over paid for advertising and always cleaning up after yourself once the campaign is over to avoid attracting the ire of the city.
For its part, Toronto has recently amended their graffiti bylaw to allow an exemption for art murals or other street art, but only on private property when the artist has permission from the property owner.
“If a company were to pay someone to paint the side of a building and they could make something look like an art mural that’s actually branded messaging, then I think that could pass. You could always talk to the building owner and come up with some sort of agreement,” says McGuigan. “Maybe you agree to leave the mural up for 30 days and then, once that time expires, give the wall a fresh coat of paint.”
As for Rise Espresso, they really thought the city would have their collective back. “We were trying not to do harm and our campaign was really meant to be classy, not obtrusive,” says Smith. “We thought the city would be a little more supportive of our business because we’re small, new and organic. It’s the type of thing you’d want to have in a city because it makes it green.”
Meanwhile, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Tim Horton’s – all businesses big enough to absorb any potential fines – have done street art campaigns on Toronto sidewalks with seemingly no consequence, while Rise itself struggled to readjust from the setback. Still, Smith vows the arrows may be back with one slight difference:
“If we were to do it again, we would do it in a chalk method that would wash off in a few weeks with the rain.”