Dancing pigs, superheroes and other tacky tactics: Small companies say guerilla marketing works for them

A six-foot-tall man dressed like a pig

is dancing on the side of U.S. 31 South near Traverse City. It's hard to miss this

pink performer as he waves and wiggles at passers-by.

"We ask everybody, it's right on our sales slip – how did you hear about us? So that we find out how our advertising dollars work. And many say, 'well I always see the dancing pig when I'm on my way to and from work,'" said Mary Reese, co-owner of America's Carpet Barn. "People just love him."

Marketing efforts like this are becoming more and more popular in the Traverse City area. With new competitors popping up around every corner, businesses have stepped outside of the box for a more forceful and often times entertaining approach.

"People stop all of the time and get out just to dance with the pig. Friends will videotape and take pictures of each other with him," said Reese. "Sometimes the guys at the Jiffy Lube across the street will come outside for a dance-off competition!"

Reese and Rogers agree that the pig's small town appeal has helped to build their great reputation with returning patrons.

Just who is the dancing pig? Co-owner Ron Rogers responded with a smirk, "We keep the identity of the pig confidential, because we want that person to be able to lead a normal life."

The BN did, however, find out the true identity of another street celebrity, Mongo Man. Scott Higaki, supervisor at bd's Mongolian Grill, takes on the not-so-easy job of wearing the giant, blow-up Mongo Man costume for many different events in the area.

"During the summertime we definitely see the results. When we do it at the Beach Bums game, for example, we notice it over the next week, the next month, and really all throughout the baseball season," he said. "I've done dance contests and musical chairs out there and everybody remembers Mongo Man for it."

Higaki said that Mongo-Man has made appearances down at the Cherry Festival as well as events like the March of Dimes. Most days you'll see him waving at cars on the corner of South Airport near the Grand Traverse Mall.

"A company like us, where we haven't reached into that form of media yet, we have to be so creative," said Sarah Wilson, marketing coordinator at bd's Mongolian. "We try to bring a hometown feel to it."

"I think the best thing is that it appeals to all ages," said Mike Akerly, owner of Top of the Ninth Comics.

"We've gotten people in from free comic book day that are still coming in every week. So it definitely works from a business standpoint," added employee Eugene Marshall. "Someone who normally wouldn't be into comics will see us out there on the street and then it just kind of clicks and they stop in. It doesn't matter how old you are."

The first Saturday every May you'll see superheroes Batman, Superman and Captain America in full color costumes, out in front of their store on 8th Street in Traverse City. The volunteers are out with signs and bulging muscles promoting the business and welcoming new patrons.

"It's a small community thing we try and keep going. It's kind of inviting when you see guys dressed up in spandex outside of a store," said Marshall.

"In Southern California that's a very popular and common thing to do. Every corner has people doing that form of advertising," said Darryl Nelson, owner of the Northwest Michigan Cash Plus franchises, based out of Southern California. "So, our franchise guy was visiting here and he said, 'it's pretty effective, you should give it a try,' so we did."

On 14th Street, just before the U.S. 31 intersection, you might have driven past Jeramiah Hartsoe of Fife Lake. He doesn't wear a costume. Instead, the all-weather conditions, full-time employee wears a sign strapped around his neck that reads, "Check Cashing." Hartsoe works six days a week for Cash Plus, for about five hours per shift.

"I just watch the street, watch the people go by, walk back and forth. I like being outside. I'd say about 97 percent of the people out here are very nice people."

"It's a tough job. Sometimes you get people waving at you and sometimes you get people flipping you off," said Nelson (regarding the other three percent Hartsoe deals with). "I've had several people that have worked one day and left. On the other hand, we had one guy that did it during the winter months who was really good. He'd dance and jump all around. He actually broke our sign, because he was doing flips on the snow bank," said Nelson.

"We ask everybody who is a new customer how they heard about us and what I've found – and I almost hate to give out the secret – is that people usually hear our radio ads and then they see the sign guy and they say 'oh that's where that place is.' It's also a spontaneous thing. People are driving around with checks on them all the time that need to be cashed," said Nelson.

David Orwig, manager at Domino's Pizza on 8th St., has a name for their marketing practices.

"We actually call it 'wobble-boarding.' It's something that other Domino's have been doing for up to a year now."

Orwig did a help wanted posting on box-tops to fill the positions. Plenty of willing job-seekers applied.

"I do it because I need some cash. Two days a week, Monday and Friday," said Jake Gerasymenko of Traverse City, after removing his iPod headphone from one ear. He listens to metal and rock to keep his mind occupied while standing on the busy corner of Garfield and 8th Street holding up Domino's Pizza signs (different depending on the deal of the day).

"Get some music, ya know, it gets you through the shift. But it's only three hours a day. Not too bad," he added.

Is it the human element that brings people in to buy a pizza? You know, seeing a person out there with the sign? "I think it's the deal," said Orwig. "We do it from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and that's definitely generated some people. They come in just for that special."

"We do have a gorilla suit that we use once in a while, but it gets too hot in the summer. That really draws people's attention," added Orwig.

These unconventional and aggressive marketing methods are sometimes referred to as guerilla marketing. The term was coined by Jay Conrad Levinson in his popular 1984 book "Guerrilla Marketing." He says that businesses who utilize these tactics rely on time, energy and imagination instead of huge marketing budgets.

He also says that small size is actually an advantage instead of a disadvantage.

"One of the main reasons we like the pig is because we feel that it separates us from big box stores," said Ron Rogers at America's Carpet Barn. "The general public doesn't really realize the devastating effect that those stores have on the local economy. We're on the front lines, so we really know." BN