Here is What We Can All Learn From the Out-of-the-Box Ideas for Marketing

I’m here to talk about something that’s a tad taboo: Prohibition.

There’s a lot of feelings about this period, lots of opinions. But regardless of where you land on the political aisle, one thing that can be picked up from even the smallest amount of study is that it didn’t go well. In fact, it didn’t go well at all.

In the 1920s, the U.S. was still growing, and it was having an identity crisis of sorts because of one, very touchy subject: alcohol. The country was divided on what to do about it, but ultimately the strong Protestant values of the voting majority caused the federal government to ban it. That’s how we got Prohibition — one of the most violent and tumultuous periods in American history.

Even though we weren’t there, we all know what Prohibition looked like thanks to movies and history books: Gangsters popped up, flappers became all the rage, and yes, alcohol was at the very center of this new, underground culture. So how did alcohol producers and distributors keep themselves in business with law enforcement on every corner?

One word: Speakeasies. And the people behind them were geniuses at brainstorming out of the box ideas for marketing.

But what were they exactly? Speakeasies were hidden bars and clubs created to quench the thirst of thousands of Americans who wanted alcohol regardless of what the government had to say about it — and they were popping up all over the nation. So while they were illegal, they were very popular.

Getting their name from patrons who had to use a code word to get in and were cautioned to “speak easy” about these secret locations when in public, speakeasies were HUGE generators for revenue and visitors, and they also influenced the entire decade in terms of culture. The fact that we know about Prohibition contemporaries like Al Capone (who alone sold liquor to over 10,000 speakeasies and pulled in more than 60 million in one year) today means speakeasies were also incredibly successful.

But how?

They used four specific tactics to spread the word:

1. Memberships

There is something unique and enriching about being a part of a community and markets LOVE identifying these communities — or even creating them where one could exist — to increase brand loyalty.

Many speakeasies used this tactic and issued custom membership cards to patrons, with new guests needing to know the password to gain entrance or even have a personal connection with the bar owner. After all, this activity was HIGHLY illegal, and you couldn’t just trust anyone with the location.

Speakeasies were built out a mutual love for a stiff drink, but we’re still doing the same thing today, and it’s not always about alcohol. Think Costco, the Kroger Plus card, or even the REI membership — these are exclusive groups that offer perks just to members. It’s not a secret club, but it’s still exciting because of it’s “members only” nature.

2. Events

No matter the decade, marketers love throwing a good event.

The same way Dan Bilzerian had Cardi B perform at his newest Ignite product launch, speakeasies would have famous performers like Josephine Baker and Barbara Stanwyck frequent their line-up. And as jazz music grew in popularity, speakeasies would organize “singles’ night” to get younger patrons in the door by announcing hot performers. So that Atlanta Hawks Tinder Night you’ve heard about? That’s an OG idea straight from 1929.

3. Influencers

Speakeasies knew that to make money they needed to work with key stakeholders. At the time, this meant partnering with government officials willing to bend the rules, the uber-rich crowd, and even high-end musicians, performers, and entertainers.

Speakeasies focused on these individuals for two reasons: the masses wanted to emulate them because they had power and influence, and they also showed potential patrons that if these people were willing to risk being at a speakeasy, then they should too. Today we call these kinds of people “influencers,” and if you want to learn more about them, just check out your Instagram feed — they’re all over it.  

4. Branding

For the larger speakeasies, branding was essential, and owners really understood the value of a cohesive look. Over the years, there were all sorts of materials used to share a speakeasy brand, from coded street signs to employing newspaper boys to deliver custom flyers and other collateral. By building their own look and feel, speakeasies were able to stand out in a crowded space the same way Nike does with it’s “swoosh.” Cool, right?

While this is not a comprehensive list of all the marketing tactics speakeasies used to market, it’s pretty fascinating to see how their strategies are still used in big picture marketing today. Speakeasies had a major obstacle when they were marketing — the U.S. government — but the pressure ultimately created unique strategies that really worked.

Modern brands are probably (hopefully) not marketing anything illegal, but they still have challenges that need creative solutions. So if I am to leave you with one bit of advice learned from speakeasy culture, it’s this: Always remember to focus on your audience and speak to their needs, dreams, and desires. If you do, they’ll support your business, regardless of whether it’s legal or not.

Bin Cochran

Author Bin Cochran

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