Photo of Bar Louie customers shared for digital strategyBar Louie was founded in 1990s Chicago as ‘The Original Gastrobar™’. Its foundation as a neighbourhood bar is integral to Bar Louie’s identity and has been central to their continued expansion to over 70 US locations. Accordingly, their marketing strategy originally had a focus that was far from digital.

General managers would meet their audience by handing out flyers and attending community events. However, as the digital world has accelerated, Bar Louie have had to tweak the recipe for their marketing strategy to bring it up to date.

The success they have witnessed has been substantial. Instagram impressions rose by 1289% from Q1 2021 to Q2 2022. We spoke with Bar Louie’s Head of Marketing, Kayla Dillon, to understand how the restaurant chain transformed their digital strategy without sacrificing their personalized approach to customer engagement.

‘The Original Gastrobar™’ goes digital

As a restaurant chain, Bar Louie centres itself on community. Each location is tailored to its neighbourhood, from Happy Hour times to menu items.

“We were a local neighbourhood bar. It was a big part of how we were founded. As we grew, it became a crucial part of our brand DNA. We didn’t want to lose sight of that when we grew into different communities, so localization continued to be a pivotal way for us to engage in the community and drive awareness around the brand.” Kayla Dillon, Head of Marketing, Bar Louie

However, in the nineties and noughties, their marketing efforts looked a little different to today.

“Our main way of engaging with the local community was what we call four block marketing, or traditional marketing. Our general managers or marketing individuals that would go into each of these markets, hand out flyers, connect with local chambers, and be a part of local community events. In fact, this drove a lot of our sales and success.”

As the world moves ever-more digital, especially within the food and beverage sector in a post-pandemic world, Bar Louie needed to shift their approach, and begun doing so in 2020.

“We had to figure out a way to pivot, how to connect with our guest base and future guest base in the local community. There’s so much variation with each brand, from when they open and close to menu changes. Now more than ever, people are searching for this information online and on social media. We decided we needed to shift from a traditional marketing strategy to a digital one to carry on meeting our audience. But that was going to bring its own challenges around how to personalize in a totally different world”

The importance of localization

Bar Louie’s marketing team understood the importance of building a cohesive digital strategy. In-person engagement with audience members at community events are now far outweighed by conversations online. Their digital presence existed, but it was far from being worth raising a toast to.

“We primarily used Facebook at the time. As part of our digital strategy pre-2020, we had a focus on Facebook to communicate and connect with fans. We had other channels like Instagram but didn’t have a system or a platform that enabled us to have a balanced centralized and localized strategy. We were under-utilizing our digital presence for local marketing and only used it for brand marketing.”

This made it extremely challenging for Bar Louie to interact and communicate with distinct locations, cities, and states, each with different requirements.

“We had to be cautious as we wanted to make sure we were doing justice to every local restaurant. We had to figure out how we could create localized Instagram profiles for our teams to start leveraging that platform that also does well from an overall brand standpoint. There was prior experience with Facebook, but localized marketing would be different on platforms like Instagram or Google My Business.”

Balancing localization with a central brand: Three steps to digital success

Identifying the right platform

It was vital for Bar Louie to find the right platform to meet their audience. As well as needing to be a part of the conversations their audience were having online, they also required a platform that allowed localization as well as a strong brand voice.

“Our key demographic skews female and from 24 to 38 years old, so we look at the millennial and gen-Z grouping. Most of those individuals have migrated from Facebook to other platforms, in particular Instagram. We saw those demographics interacting very well with our brand page. If they were spending more time here than on Facebook, we needed to assess how to create a strong localized strategy on this platform.”

However, as well as social media, Bar Louie knew how frequently their audience would be searching online for information about their various locations. This was another avenue ripe for customer engagement. As well as Instagram, they also placed a focus on Google My Business.

Google My Business would help us not only improve awareness and allow us to occupy a further platform, but it also helped with SEO. We know people search questions such as ‘Is this restaurant open near me,’ or ‘What are your hours of operation.’ This was an opportunity for us to answer them. We could populate information that might say, for example, ‘We’re closing at noon today,’ or ‘it’s Burger Tuesday, we’re open for dining’.”

“You could get real time information for the specific location. This was hugely impactful for user experience, much more than just posting something on social media, because we didn’t just want awareness, we also wanted to provide people with the information they needed. If they were in the intent to buy stage, having this information would be the key to continuing their buyer journey.”

These platforms would prove to be hugely successful for Bar Louie. From Q1 2021 to Q1 2022:

  • Instagram Impressions increased by 1289%
  • Total Reviews increased by 36% to 5,790
  • Website visits increased by close to 60%

Balancing localization with a clear brand message

Photo of Bar Louie Bar StaffOnce Bar Louie had identified the right platforms for engaging with their digital audience, they needed to build relationships through local pages, and personalized content/information. However, they needed to retain a clear brand identity. As a result, their digital expansion had a centralized foundation.

“We built all the pages from corporate house. There were some legacy pages like Google My Business pages which were already built but still needed to be optimized, and some Instagram pages had already been set up. We’d even be surprised to find pages we didn’t know existed and content that was always fun for a marketer to find. However, a lot needed to be built out from scratch. We took the opportunity to rebrand at that stage and set up our new brand page with new logos, messaging, and a clear brand voice.”

With this foundation in place, they could begin setting up or updating the local pages, extending the new brand voice to these locations. Still working from the corporate office, the small marketing team would set up each page, working closely with each location to do so. It was a labour-intensive process, but it was crucial in giving each location the freedom to begin running their own pages, whilst still having a core brand message to fall back on.

“It took a lot of time to build each page and to connect the local managers. We’d even have to wait for the restaurant to receive an email verification and approve it so we could connect it with their own email address. Of course, it was time consuming, but it would create a far more streamlined process moving forward where managers could have autonomy over pages but remain plugged in to the core brand identity.”

“Now we have the system, process, and platform that enables us to have a centralized view which makes it much more scalable for the future. We implemented an all-in-on marketing platform for brands with multiple locations called SOCi . Taking a centralized approach simplified things for restaurant managers, and increased opt-in and engagement from restaurants which was vital to success, especially at the localized level.”

Thanks to their careful balance between centralization and localization, Bar Louie is a top performer out of nearly 300 top multi-location brands based on approximately 100 metrics in search, social or reputation1. Brands who implement platforms and processes that embrace localization can improve community engagement. Leaders in localization often have far more reviews than most brands, averaging 564 reviews per location on Google compared to the benchmark of 224.

Freedom within a framework

Bar Louie had provided their local restaurants with a simple platform and framework for engaging with their local community. The next step was to give them the training needed so each location could create and share engaging content and information for their customers that would replace the community meetings of years gone by.

“We put content libraries together of branded content and best practices. We would provide each restaurant with images and tips on how to localize them to their location. However, we knew it would be a slow process. For local team members not used to focusing on content, gentle encouragement would be required. The corporate team would encourage practices such as sharing photos of team members and provide the resources needed for initiatives such as videos showing new menu items.”

Photo of Bar Louie nachos shared for digital strategyProviding the initial resources and content ideas gave local restaurants the confidence to create their own personalized, community-driven content that embodied what Bar Louie’s brand is all about and helped each location connect with their key demographic. The central brand also had a role to play in amplifying these local pages with their own posting, as well as bringing on micro-influencers for each location.

“When we were sharing certain promotions, we’d start tagging different locations to increase awareness of the local pages. People would start to see and understand that we have localized pages, which also started to adding content to their feeds. This would help each location build their audience and help them utilize the platform with more content that would relate to their specific demographic and community presence.”

“Micro-influencers have also been a key driver in our success. With a tight budget, how could we avoid spending money on boosting ads but still increase impact? We brought on local micro-influencers who would tag the location and provide fantastic user-generated content that we didn’t have yet. They gave us great content, amplified our voice with the local community that was a shared audience, and cost a fraction of macro-scale influencers. They’re hugely important for brands looking to localize to specific audiences outside of their overall branding.”

Digital to stay on the menu

When reflecting on their efforts to embrace a digital strategy, Dillon highlighted the importance of a culture of testing and patience at Bar Louie, and the importance of getting buy-in from all stakeholders:

“We could set up local Instagram pages all day long. But if they’re not going to utilize the platform, then it’s not going to do what we’re intending. Of course, there was resistance, but we had faith in the platforms we were using and always encouraged local managers to have fun. From the beginning we emphasized that it was going to be a learning experience and far from perfect, explaining to each store that we would test and learn together.”

Turning their attention to the future, it’s clear testing new strategies and platforms will continue to be vital as Bar Louie adjust to the ever-changing digital marketing landscape.

Cranston and Paul as Bar Louie Influencers for Digital Stategy“To this day we’re still finding out what works and what doesn’t. We’re very lucky to have a leadership team who understands the value of intentional testing. If we test something and it doesn’t work, then at least we know not to put any more energy there. Last quarter we’ve begun experimenting in areas like TikTok or with celebrity influencers like Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, and we’ll continue to test and learn as the digital landscape changes constantly.”

Bar Louie’s pivot to embrace a digital approach to customer engagement has been one long happy hour. A culture of testing and learning has allowed – and will continue to allow – the ‘Original Gastrobar’ to localize to individual communities on digital platforms.

1 SOCi 2022 Localized Marketing Benchmark Report


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