Part 1. Ballin’ on a budget: how to promote your bar without spending a fortune

Jane Ryan

09 May 2018

Bars today seek accolades and awards as much as they do bottles of booze. But it’s not always for ego-building purposes – for a prized spot in the world’s 50 best can mean media coverage and more drinkers through the doors.

However, most first-time bar owners don’t have the budget to hire PRs to ensure their bar is spoken about and has plenty coverage, thus pushing themselves into those lists. So what can they do to compete with hotel spends and bars backed by brands?

Plenty, says Iain McPherson of Panda & Sons and Hoot the Redeemer, who shared his tips and hacks on how to get your fledgling bar noticed when your marketing budget is smaller than your tips jar at Tales of The Cocktail on Tour in Edinburgh.

Break out the business plan

‘I started trying to build a brand before I even had a bar. If you don’t have a bar yet, you’re the brand and you need to start hustling. You have to start making a name for yourself.

‘After I became general manager at The Voodoo Rooms, I started writing a business plan. I had all these great ideas and I thought I knew what I was going to do, but as soon as you write it all down, you realise not all your ideas can fit into one bar. It gives you a clear vision of how your bar is going to feel and look, but also you’ve got a clear marketing vision about what you’re going to do, rather than really scattered things, and that way people always remember exactly what you’re all about.’

Win yourself a name

‘After that I realised my profile wasn’t quite big enough. So I needed to start doing more competitions.

‘Now competitions don’t necessarily make you a good bartender, but you can still learn things from them. For me, this was the marketing the brands and their press partners could give me, and I knew having some success in competitions would help my profile pre-opening a bar.’


Get creative on social media

‘Two years of perfecting my business plan and I knew I was ready to do it. I got the keys to Panda & Sons in 2013. The next questions was how do we do this? How are we going to make this big before we even open?

‘Everyone had Facebook back in 2013, but brands weren’t really using it, so I saw a gap there to use to my advantage. Most bars had about 500 to 600 likes on their pages, which didn’t seem very good. So we did a whole thing around the fictional characters of the Panda family. We were creating these stories and then started to work around audience interaction.

‘Three months later we opened and already had 2,500 likes. That’s not so substantial nowadays, but back then it was a big reach for a bar and social media costs nothing. It’s just creating the hype.’

Friends in useful places

‘I don’t have a PR team. I don’t have PAs. I don’t have an event’s organiser. Some of these roles I wish I did have, because a lot of the time you’re stressed. But obviously when you’re doing it for yourself you know exactly what you want to get out of it for your bar.

‘We all probably have friends in PR, so utilise them by asking them to your bar to read through your proposal and to have a few drinks.

‘What does that cost you? Alcohol is the currency of your bar – it costs you nothing to give someone a few free beers. But don’t lie to them and invite them down and then trap them with a whole PR spiel – be very honest that you want to pick their brain about something.

‘Friendly reminders about yourself and the bar are good as well – this is what I do quite a lot. Over the years, I’ve got a good database of editors, freelancers and journalists. We obviously send them quite a lot of the events, but now and then we send over a loose, tongue-in-cheek, press release. Regardless of whether they publish it or not at least you’re keeping fresh in their minds.’

Carry on hustling

‘Work for free, do takeovers. It’s all about the global reach of your bar and your ability to team up with brands. Most brands, if they’re doing a good job, will pay for your flights and give stock support and it’s great marketing.

‘To finish off, I’d say it’s about evolving as well. How do you survive while still keeping the identity of your bar? I think this is a really good quote by Charles Darwin. He said, “in the long history of humankind, those who learnt to collaborate most effectively have prevailed.”

‘This goes back to collaborating with other bars and collaborating with brands.’

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