Picture: 123RF/kentoh
Picture: 123RF/kentoh

First, let’s clear something up: dark marketing is not intrinsically illicit. By adding dark marketing to your arsenal, you’re not going to get caught up in a spy ring or do anything illegal or, for that matter, start brandishing a red lightsabre and Force-choking your enemies. The summary of regulation is restriction. Restriction is the foundation of creativity. And creativity is where the magic of dark marketing lies.  

What exactly is dark marketing? When traditional communication channels are not available, you have to invent new ones – which, naturally, will not have the appearance of marketing as you know it. Simply put, dark marketing is that which isn’t seen by the public. It’s challenging, creative and super-exciting.  

Round about now, you may be feeling either grateful or smug that your brand is free to use the usual marketing channels. And yes, traditionally, it’s been regulated industries that would turn to the “dark side”. Industries like tobacco and gambling have to operate within tight legal constraints, while the likes of finance and pharmaceuticals operate under strict regulatory bodies. But more recently, the rules of the game have changed. Fluctuating lockdown restrictions have affected many formerly unregulated industries and the Protection of Personal Information Act (Popi) affects us all. And on this new, trickier playing field, the principles of dark marketing may be the advantage you didn’t know you had available. 

Beyond the line: a new way to market

Talk marketing strategy and the first question is whether your campaign will be above the line or below the line, right? Well, what if I told you there was no line? Or rather, that you didn’t have to position your strategy around it? It’s the above the line and below the line spaces that are constrained by regulation. But while governments can regulate how brands communicate to people, they can’t regulate how people speak to each other – and that’s when you start thinking beyond the line. 

These days, consumers are more inclined to be influenced by what their fellow humans have to say about a brand than what brands have to say about themselves. Sometimes this influence is sought out, but many of the core beliefs that people have about brands are unconsciously ingrained in them – often from childhood. It’s why we use the same brands that our parents used without ever considering that there may be other toothpastes in this world that don’t taste like sand.  

The chances of breaking these habits with traditional marketing are slim – you can’t get someone to act upon your message when they’re not even seeing it. But a beyond the line strategy finds ways to infiltrate these conversations and make the word on the street work in your favour. It’s about living in people’s lives rather than trying to interrupt them. After all, people don’t speak to brands, they speak to people – so if you can be a brand that is a friend, then you’re winning.  

Of course, beyond the line doesn’t live exclusively devoid of traditional channels. If you have access to them, use them. Just add this to your toolbox as well. 

Matthew van der Valk is an executive creative director at VMLY&R with more than 15 years’ experience in dark marketing

The big take-out:

On this new, trickier playing field, the principles of dark marketing may be the advantage you didn’t know you had available.

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