Last Updated: November 28, 2020

In 2002, Sony Ericsson was one of the first companies to produce a cellular phone with a digital camera peripheral, called the T68i. The company wanted to generate buzz on a large scale for the T68i, but the device was such a novel combination of technologies that its marketing department struggled to find a way to both educate and excite consumers with traditional advertising like magazine ads and TV commercials. For a more organic, person-to-person marketing experience, Sony Ericsson started what would become one of the most famous examples of stealth marketing in history.

Using 60 actors in 10 major cities, Sony Ericsson instigated a viral effect that is still talked about today. The actors, posing as tourists, couples, and other regular people, asked strangers on the street to help them take a picture (See also Undercover Marketing).

Instead of handing those strangers a camera, they handed them their new camera-phone by Sony Ericsson. They talked enthusiastically about the device’s features and taught the helpful passers-by how to use it. The aim of the campaign was to get as many people as possible to talk about their unique experience with a new and innovative camera-phone. The campaign was largely considered a success, with the T68i rising to become one of the best selling phones of the year in several countries.

What is stealth marketing?

Stealth marketing, also known as buzz marketing, is any marketing strategy that advertises a product to people without them knowing they are being marketed to (See also Buzz Marketing). There are many techniques in stealth marketing, the most common being product placement and undercover marketing. The main purpose of stealth marketing is not to generate immediate sales, but to create interest and excitement that will make consumers more receptive to direct advertising later.

Word of Mouth is Powerful

Stealth marketing can be a great way to spread product info by word-of-mouth. The numbers related to word-of-mouth are an advertiser’s dream come true.

2.4 billion: Number of brand-related conversations every day in the U.S.

  • 90% happen offline
  • 66% are positive

Source: Word of Mouth Marketing Association

Sony Ericsson’s T68i camera-phone marketing campaign employed actors who secretly represented the company, giving them opportunities to interact with strangers and promote the poduct in a non-obvious way. Many companies choose this method because it is inexpensive compared to more traditional advertising.

Product placement features a product outside of the context of an advertisement, usually as a part of some form of mass media or entertainment. Companies place their products in movies and TV shows, and enter endorsement deals with celebrities to pitch products.

Regardless of what specific approach a company takes, stealth marketing is most effective in raising awareness about a new product that hasn’t been widely advertised yet.

Who uses stealth marketing?

A variety of companies can use stealth marketing techniques to drum up buzz for a product. It is most commonly used by larger companies that can afford to use multiple marketing strategies for a single product; although, stealth marketing has also been used successfully by small companies to create interest in a new product.

Sony Ericsson used stealth marketing for the T68i because it was a product that most consumers did not know about. They hoped that their undercover marketing campaign would get people talking about a novel technology before the company launched other forms of advertising for the phone.

Beware of Backlash

Some stealth marketing campaigns have been highly effective, but others have been disasters. In late 2005 and early 2006, Sony tried to make undercover lightning strike twice with a series of online videos and a fan site promoting the PSP handheld console that they were marketing in the guise of an enthusiastic fan. People discovered the truth very quickly and the campaign had the opposite of Sony’s intended effect. It generated highly negative buzz about Sony and its marketing consultants at an agency called Zipatoni. Though it’s difficult to say if this impacted sales of the PSP, it did great harm to Sony’s public image.

Smaller companies without extensive marketing resources can use stealth marketing to raise awareness about a product instead of using any traditional advertising at all.

One of the most notable cases of stealth marketing by a small business was fashion entrepreneur Daymond John’s first campaign for the FUBU clothing line. John had almost no operating budget and no access to traditional advertising, so he asked hip hop stars Run DMC and LL Cool J to wear FUBU clothing at concerts and during their appearances on MTV. This gave FUBU a massive audience without John having to spend any money buying advertising space. The campaign was successful and FUBU became a major clothing label.

Creating a stealth marketing plan

Stealth marketing can be a risky investment. It rarely has a measurable effect on business as quickly as other kinds of marketing, and it can have a negative impact on consumer opinion if people become aware of it too soon. For these reasons, any company considering stealth marketing as a strategy should honestly assess the costs and potential complications of the technique before implementing it.

A company must read consumer data and conduct surveys to create a clear picture of who its customers are, and how they might react to stealth marketing materials. If a cosmetics company, for instance, wanted to launch a product placement campaign for a line of lipstick designed for girls between the ages of 13 and 18, the company should research what movies, TV shows, and celebrities people in that demographic prefer.

After collecting market research data, a company can create its stealth marketing materials. This may include writing a script for an undercover campaign, crafting product placement scenarios, or developing any other method that introduces consumers to the product. At this stage, the cosmetics company can approach the TV networks, movie studios, and celebrities that might feature the new lipstick. The company can start pitching ideas for product placement scenarios, such as a character on one of the TV shows using the lipstick in an upcoming episode.

A company can choose to let a stealth marketing campaign stand on its own, or use it as the foundation for additional marketing. If the cosmetics company decides not to create any other advertising for the new lipstick, it can start to measure any changes in sales or conversion rates related to that product to determine if the campaign was effective. Otherwise, the company could also start to run traditional advertisements in magazines, on television, or on the Internet to connect with consumers on another level.

Know the Law

Some stealth marketing practices exist in a legal gray area. Some consumer protection groups have asked the United States Federal Trade Commission to investigate stealth practices as early as 2005 and many undercover marketing tactics are explicitly illegal in the European Union. Any company considering using stealth marketing should be aware of local laws regarding the strategy.

Careers in stealth marketing

Stealth marketing, unlike many other forms of marketing, is not driven by content or design. Instead, it relies on the research and communication skills of specialized professionals. The following are a few career paths that are likely to be involved in a stealth marketing campaign.

Market Researcher

What do they do?

Stealth Marketing Salaries

  • Market Researcher
    Starting: $39,000
    Median: $51,000
    Top Earners: $65,000
  • Public Relations Representative
    Starting: $34,000
    Median: $46,000
    Top Earners: $55,000
  • Marketing Manager
    Starting: $41,480
    Median: $83,890
    Top Earners: $166, 400

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

In the early stages of a stealth marketing campaign, a company will conduct research into consumer behavior and market trends. It is a market researcher’s job to study existing market data, conduct original research through surveys and modeling, and communicate any relevant information to others on the marketing team. This requires equal comfort with business software and interactions with a variety of people in the field.

Education and Skills

A market researcher should have a bachelor’s degree in marketing, business, psychology, sociology, or communications. It is also helpful to have work experience in data entry or any other research-focused positions.

Public Relations Representative

What do they do?

Public relations professionals are often the first point of contact between two companies, so a PR representative is likely to be involved when a company wants to pursue a product placement deal. Public relations is a very people-oriented field, so excellent written and verbal communication skills are a must.

Education and Skills

Public relations representatives should have a bachelor’s degree in marketing, business, psychology, or communications. Previous experience in retail or any other service-related work can be very valuable.

Marketing Manager

What do they do?

Stealth marketing often requires a lot of careful coordination and budgeting. A marketing manager is a team leader who is responsible for overseeing an entire marketing campaign and ensuring that everyone on the marketing team is communicating with one another effectively. A manager must understand every step of the campaign and be able to motivate everyone on the team to perform to the best of their abilities.

Education and Skills

A marketing manager is in an advanced position, so he or she is expected to have several years of experience in the field of marketing in a non-management role. This experience is in addition to a bachelor’s degree in marketing, business, or any other subject related to marketing. Managers also often have an advanced education, such as a Master of Business Administration degree.

How can a marketing school help you succeed?

Our Recommended Schools

  1. Grand Canyon University (GCU)

    GCU's Colangelo College of Business offers leading edge degrees that address the demands of contemporary business environments.

  2. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU)

    Explore the bond between business and consumer behavior with a degree in marketing.

Stealth marketing is an advanced strategy that requires a solid understanding of the entire field of modern marketing practices. A professional who wants to become an expert in this field should consider a marketing education program. Marketing programs provide an efficient means to learn and experience the wide range of strategies and techniques in the business, and they do so in an environment that is independent from the highly competitive world of the workplace.

Early course work in a marketing program will cover the basics of topics like team building, project budgeting, and brand development. In these classes, students will acquire the research and communication skills that will serve them in various positions, especially in market research and management.

Technology-focused classes concentrate on common business tools like office suite, database management software, and slide show presentation programs, as well as the way new and emerging media factor into marketing. This is where students will learn the importance of social networking and web content, both of which are common tools in stealth marketing and most other modern strategies. (See also Facebook Marketing)

At higher levels, marketing programs bring the curriculum into the real world with case studies of successful marketing campaigns. Students will be able to read in-depth examinations of campaigns like Sony Ericsson’s T68i undercover plan and the FUBU product placement effort. Students will also take part in simulations where they will develop their own marketing campaigns to test their knowledge.

A good marketing program can give a professional the skills and experience necessary to excel in the fast-paced environment of a busy marketing team. It is a hands-on education in a varied and exciting field.