The Secrecy of Speakeasies: Marketing the Unmarketable

The atmosphere is electric. The drinks are expensive. Everyone wants to go. What am I talking about?

Why, it’s a speakeasy bar!

Promoting a product, place, or service can be an extremely difficult job, but New York’s speakeasies have it down to a science. Their secret? Hide your business and don’t advertise. Groupon? Forget about it. Speakeasies want their customers to have a difficult time finding their bar. So, how in the world do these concealed, tough to access cocktail lounges do so well? For a number of reasons.

New York City, especially Manhattan, is home to a number of wonderfully decadent, Prohibition-themed speakeasy bars. Most of these bars are difficult to get into on a weekend and some of them even require memberships. Why all the fuss about these underground cocktail lounges? There’s a certain nostalgia attached to New York’s speakeasies and it’s one that resonates with an era troubled with political strife and gang activity. Visiting a speakeasy let’s you experience all the benefits of the 1920s, without all the scary downsides. It’s dangerous fun, without all the danger.

With calling your bar a Speakeasy, it must be somewhat of a secret, or at least slightly challenging to find amongst the bright lights and potent smells of the city’s watering holes. In this day and age, it’s hard to keep anything a secret,  especially with search engines and social media platforms like Foursquare and Twitter.  To counteract this overexposure, quite a few bars employ dark, hidden entrances that usually come in the form of old-school phone boxes. But, really, how do you market something that’s supposed to be a secret? Is it possible to have something that is both popular and elusive?

Over the past couple of days, I was able to get in touch with a few speakeasies and inquire as to how they promote their underground establishments.Living on the Lower East Side, I found out I was only an arm’s length away from some of the city’s most popular 20s themed bars. The Back Room, fashioned after a 1920’s drawing room, is a beautiful bar. With velvet wallpaper and flashy chandeliers, this LES speakeasy mainly garners attention by word of mouth. The events coordinator of The Back Room, Megan Bones, explains that, “We actually don’t do any marketing. It’s all word of mouth.  But a lot of people do write-ups about our bar as well”. The manager of Elsa (located on east 3rd st) stated something very similar. Regarding their promotional activity, Elsa, “Never commits to paid advertising, there are never Groupon deals. We mainly rely on people telling their friends”.

Though somewhat of a stretch, bars like Elsa and The Back Room can look to major corporations for ideas on how to market themselves. We can even refer to Apple and how they use anticipation to market their products. Like Apple, many of these concealed bars rely on hype as their main marketing gimmick. Before Apple releases a product, there’s a ridiculous amount of anticipation surrounding their new, unreleased work. Fans create concept designs, there are forecasts made on the success of the product, everyone goes hog-wild crazy with anticipation! On the same note, the royal marriage between Prince William and Kate Middleton this past year was a massive media event, mainly because of the hysteria this young couple created by being together for so long. Was William going to marry Kate? When was it going to happen? Everyone (except for, perhaps, the Brits) was dying with anticipation. Then, William proposed to Kate, creating one of the most celebrated media affairs of the decade. Similarly, New York’s speakeasies utilize hype and hope to attract both clientele and stellar reviews. Yes, on a much smaller scale when placed next to Apple and the Royal Wedding, but there’s something so attractive about hope and secrecy.

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What kind of crowd gravitates to your typical speakeasy? Ms. Bones states that the crowd at The Back Room is mainly, “Mid-twenties to mid-forties. (We card for age 25 and older on the weekends.) Artists, Actors, Musicians, business professionals, neighborhood folks, and tourists from other countries. I think our crowd is pretty easy going and nice-looking”. My past experiences in speakeasies have been nothing but pleasurable and the crowd isn’t usually obnoxiously drunk. Speakeasies are all “savoring”. Savoring your beautiful surroundings and savoring your delicious, elaborate drink. To come to a place like the Back Room and not remember it would be a down right shame.

Speakeasies have to remain hidden in order to really gain that air of secrecy that was so prevalent during Prohibition. So, how do you conceal a bar that your customers can still find?  Do the customers of The Back Room have a tough time? Ms. Bones states, “All the time, but that is part of the fun!  It is a little easier on the weekends because we have doorman outside the gate”. There’s a definite sense of wanting something you can’t have associated with these bars. You might have trouble finding these speakeasies, or have a difficult time getting in, but we’ll always come back for more. These are truly risky promotional tactics, but, somehow, these 1920’s themed bars get away with it. Will I be going back to a speakeasy? Oh, yes!

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