To Lorraine “Lola” Hooper, marketing is as much of an art as constructing a flawless cupcake tree. She has taken a very specific approach to that art since opening the retail location of Lola Cookies & Treats in Leesburg, Va., five years ago. The scratch bakery offers cookies, bars, small cakes, cupcakes, scones and muffins.
Hooper does all of Lola’s marketing, which has been strategically limited since the beginning. “The type of food we’re selling and the image we are all about is about being genuine–about real food and quality ingredients and the personal touch,” she says. When she opened Lola, she intentionally kept advertising to a minimum. “It was a bit of a risk but very much a conscious decision,” she says. “I didn’t want to come into a small town and bombard everyone with print advertising. I wanted to be naturally embraced by the community. I wanted to get people to come and try the product and then tell their friends.”
Shortly before opening day, Hooper and her son walked in the local Halloween parade–a favorite event among locals–dressed as up a milk carton and cookie, respectively. They handed out cookies and coupons for free product. She also bought a small ad in the local paper announcing Lola would offer free cookies on opening day. “There was a line out the door the whole day,” she says.
Her approach since then has been similarly focused on becoming a fixture in Leesburg, which has about 35,000 residents. The bakery has become something of a media darling in Loudon County and beyond, having appeared on multiple local news segments, on syndicated talk show “Rachael Ray,” and in regional newspapers and magazines. The bakery was even tapped to contribute a series of baking demonstration videos on how-to website MonkeySee. Hooper attributes much of the publicity to word of mouth.
Social media has also factored into Hooper’s marketing efforts because it is largely consumer-driven, and thus inexpensive. “I love social media. I think it’s a great outgrowth of natural word of mouth and normal conversation and nearly free,” she says. Furthermore, it is well suited to the demographics of the people who frequent Lola–primarily women aged 18 to 44. Hooper posts photos and updates every few days. This spring, she even hosted a photo contest for customers, awarding the winner with a $25 store gift card. She also sends out a weekly newsletter via email. “There is a fine art to the frequency of your emails and Facebook posts,” she notes, adding that it is easy to overwhelm people with updates, which may cause them to lose interest.
Lola also got on the group discounting bandwagon late last year, offering a Groupon deal of half price for a dozen cupcakes, which 358 customers purchased. Hooper says the goal was primarily to increase customer awareness. “Mostly I was trying to get more people aware of us because our location in this town is not ideal,” she says. “That’s the biggest thing I’m fighting against all the time. In a community as small as ours, if we want to survive, we have to capture a large percentage of people.”
At Palermo Bakery in Chicago, a Sicilian couple has been recreating a taste of Sicily through traditional pastries, cookies, cakes, pizzas and–of course–its best-selling cannoli, since opening in August 2001.
In addition to a growing retail business, the bakery has established a strong wholesale presence in Chicagoland. Palermo sells frozen filled cannolis along with cookies, Danish, coffeecakes and other products to grocery delivery service Peapod and local supermarkets Pete’s Fresh Market, Produce World, Mariano’s Italian market and Shop & Save. A second location opened in Franklin Park, Ill., in 2006.
Paula Greco, co-owner of the bakery with her husband and third-generation baker Joe, approaches marketing much like she does every other facet of the business: with almost stubborn steadfastness. “When I decide to do something, I stick with it. I make goals and give myself a few months to do them,” she says. Her marketing strategy has been primarily to use online tools to spread the word, as this is where the future of the baking industry–and most others–lies, she says.
She launched Palermo’s website three years ago, in response to customer demand. “I never wanted to do it and thought it would be really hard,” Greco says. “But a lot of people were asking if we had a website, even for basic information.”
She worked with a graphic designer to set up the site, which allows users to browse for products by category. Most products are accompanied by high-resolution product photos. “Since we have a lot of Sicilian pastries, people might not know what certain things are, so rather than describe how they’re prepared and what they taste like, I can direct them to the site. It is easier to just show them,” she says. The site also houses an online store, which was launched last year. It hasn’t been quite as successful as Greco hoped; most traffic occurs during the holiday season.
Greco updates the bakery’s Facebook wall daily when she has time, which sometimes means she’s posting photos and responding to fan comments at 4 a.m. over her morning coffee. She says the main purpose of Palermo’s Facebook presence is to educate existing and potential customers about the range of products–both Sicilian and otherwise–that the bakery stocks aside from the famous cannoli. “We do a lot of traditional stuff, but we can also do lobster tails, alligator cakes, cupcakes–lots of other things that less traditional bakeries are known for,” she says.
Within the past year, Palermo has also staged three group-discounting promotions. The most recent and most successful was a Groupon offer of $20 worth of product for $10 in March. One thousand consumers purchased the Groupon, including a lot of new customers. “You have to look at it as advertising because you really aren’t making any money off of the actual offer,” she says. “The goal was to get new people in and try to reach other people who aren’t aware that we’re here. So far it’s working.”
While Greco sets regular marketing goals, she says that Palermo’s best marketing tool is most often word of mouth. “We get a lot of phone calls from people who tried our cakes or cannolis at a party,” she says. “All we can do is offer people a good product and hope it will keep them coming back and telling their friends about us. From a marketing standpoint, I have done pretty much all I can other than sing and dance.”