5 Things Marketers Can Learn from Speakeasy Culture

Brittany Chaffee

02 October 2019

taylor-davidson-iwWJFIlnDm4-unsplashPhoto by Taylor Davidson on Unsplash

Speakeasies, born during the Prohibition Era (1920-1933), were created to appease the drinking and daring kind. The phrase “speak softly shop” appeared first in the British slang dictionary, published in 1823. This expression bounced into the United States in the 1880s, in a Pennsylvania newspaper reading, “they were so called ‘speak-easies’ because of the practice of speaking quietly about such a place in public, or when inside of it, so as to not to alert the police or neighbors.”

If you’ve ever been to a speakeasy, you know it’s a delectable thrill. You’re in on something secretive, maybe even forbidden, and you’re solving a code – or know a secret password. Speakeasy culture came back sometime in 1999 when Milk & Honey in New York City opened, meant to revive cocktail culture and provide an alternative for loud nightlife. And boy, did the trend rise.

So, what does this have to do with marketing?

Speakeasy culture has a lot to say about how we should be communicating in a world that loves to be "in on" a secret. Here are five insights that were successful for the speakeasy world and can be applied to your experiential marketing strategy.

Exclusivity is intoxicating

Sometimes, you have to be creative about how people experience something – especially when it comes to a day and age full of sensory moments. How can you make things exclusive? Speakeasies do this well, creating different variations of how people can access the brand. Why not make an experience feel like a reward? When it comes to speakeasies, we don’t think people are even going there to socialize. The bar concept makes them feel sophisticated and tempted to share the experience with friends. That’s the intoxicating part. Make people feel like they’re sharing something others don’t have access to (right away, anyhow). For Americans in general, enduring a sense of elitism is contagious and traces back to the Pilgrims. In Jonah Berger’s book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, it mentions this theory and the social currency of knowing what’s exclusive. Make people feel ahead of the curve.

The idea of a pageantry experience can build an evolution

The true hallmarks of speakeasy culture (secret passwords, hidden doors, mystery, craft cocktails, rules of entry, and an unknown atmosphere) are what drives the appeal. How can we apply this toward marketing? By creating experiences that are excruciatingly unique – while still serving a purpose. Speakeasies wanted to get people excited about good cocktails again. When you’re thinking of your marketing goals, how can you accomplish them in a way that gets people to care? Maybe it’s all about taking a piece of history and re-applying it to today’s world with an elaborate ceremony. The re-birth of cocktails paired with speakeasy culture, as Nielsen reported in 2016, found a 23% increase of Americans regularly drinking cocktails at bars. And sales keep going up.

Keep an elaborate backstory. Rely on history. Tell the stories of the people that work for you. Keep finding unique ways to share. The story, even if it's cliché, creates a culture people can stand by.

There’s nothing wrong with a cliché (if you stay true to your story)

A good, old fashioned cliché (pun intended) hasn’t only worked for the speakeasy world. Consider Starbucks! A lot of people credit Starbucks for creating modern coffee culture. Both the speakeasy world and Starbucks have created a platform of cliché storytelling, specifically around what they’re serving, the current trends in the industry, and their people. The lesson here? Keep an elaborate backstory. Rely on history. Tell the stories of the people that work for you. Keep finding unique ways to share. The story, even if it's cliché, creates a culture people can stand by.

This type of “escapism” experience gives the customer the control

In a recent article by PUNCH, the author questions how the 20-year rebirth craze of the speakeasy world hasn’t gone to die. One of its main reasons? That the completely hidden entrances provide people a quick way to make a statement and “control the room.” Dave Kaplan, a partner in Proprietors LLC, which operates Death & Co. says, “A ‘speakeasy’ entrance can help you hone your customer base.” Escapism is a delightful appeal to the experience as well. The Death & Co. bar ended up removing the windows from the restaurant entirely to make it more unassuming. If customers are able to remove themselves from the real world, that’s an appeal in its own. (Writer’s Note: I’m willing to bet that’s why America loves Disney World so much!) Which brings us to our final point.

Make people feel like a kid again

Adam Gorski, bar manager at Young Joni’s The Back Bar, located in Minneapolis, was quoted in PUNCH saying, “We want to make you feel like a kid, like you’re about to sneak some beers.” The Back Bar is unique because the menus are fashioned to look like vintage high school yearbooks, community newspapers, and other whimsical items. Take note, marketers. Nostalgia wins every time.


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Brittany Chaffee


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