Marketing strategy

14 Simple-But-Effective Marketing Ideas for Your Cafe

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February 29, 2024

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Is your café stuck in a rut? Fear not! We’ve compiled a list of simple-but-savvy marketing ideas for café and coffee shop owners to draw inspiration from.

Coffee is a part of just about every working professional’s morning. Who doesn't look forward to a cappuccino — or a flat white, if you're a millennial — accompanied by a fresh pastry or snack? 

With about 38,411 coffee shops and cafes in the U.S. alone, and a market value of $45.8b, our love for coffee runs deep. 

Despite this, coffee shops and cafes, like many small businesses, still face steep competition. It’s sad to say, but providing a great product alone won’t guarantee success. Yes, cafes have to do this, but they also have to control their costs, manage a healthy supply chain, quickly adapt to new customer preferences or seasonal options, and, on top of everything, incentivize customers to keep coming back!

It’s a lot to juggle at once and is certainly not for the faint of heart. 

Marketing may not be your passion. You may even dislike it! But creating and fostering an effective marketing strategy allows you to focus on your passion for running a great cafe. Getting new customers through the door and keeping those that you have is typically priority #1 for any business.

We’ve compiled a list of 14 effective coffee shop marketing ideas for you to try out.

1. Referral programs

What is the most effective way to spread the word about a business? Incentivize others to do it for you! With 88% of respondents stating they trust recommendations from people they know over advertising, it’s easy to see why encouraging customers to refer friends and family to your business is so effective. 

A customer referral program will often give the referrer some sort of discount, free product, or other benefit for pointing some business your way. This kind of marketing technique, often called word-of-mouth, relies on word about your business organically spreading. A great cup of coffee or snack that your customer enjoys will only make a referral more valuable. 

However, referral programs will also increase your customer acquisition cost (CAC). This is the average amount that you have to spend to acquire a new customer for your business. If not properly planned, or if those new customers aren’t continuing to shop at your coffee shop, referral programs can be costly. 

A simple referral program could utilize a digital referral card that your customers can easily share with friends and family via social media or email. Each card could have a unique code that offers the referrer a free drink or a discount after a certain number of successful referrals. Alternatively, you could integrate a referral program into your cafe’s loyalty program, so customers earn points not only for their purchases but also for each new customer they bring in. On that note… 

2. A membership or loyalty program

Membership and loyalty programs are already incredibly popular amongst businesses both small and large. Starbucks Rewards, Costco Membership, and airline frequent flyer rewards are all examples of popular membership and loyalty programs that you’ve probably already heard of. The truth is, most businesses have already seen the benefits of creating such programs and incorporated one into their marketing strategy. What you may not have heard about before is a Web3 loyalty program:

Did you know that Starbucks, the world’s largest coffee shop chain, uses Web3 tech in its loyalty program? Starbucks Odyssey is a program that incorporates NFTs as “stamps” that customers earn as they move along interactive journey activities. Customers can then use these stamps to get more benefits as they continue to shop at Starbucks. 

This all sounds great, but what in the world is Web3? Why is Starbucks using it? 

Web3 is the next phase of the internet that is powered by blockchain. Web3 can make it easier to build and maintain complex systems like loyalty programs while offering better rewards to customers. A blockchain database makes it easier to store digital information, while digital tokens (NFTs) handle the verification of digital ownership. 

Starbucks Odyssey, for example, incorporates Web3 technology into its membership program through its NFT stamps, which act as access passes to more benefits as customers continue to engage with the program. The Starbucks Odyssey system also fosters a sense of community as customers interact more with one another as they trade and collect stamps.

The best part about a Web3 loyalty program is that it’s far easier to set up and maintain than a traditional loyalty program. Databases storing customer information aren’t necessary when you can take advantage of blockchain databases. Better, more personalized rewards can be distributed to customers when you can easily access the preferences that are attached to their NFTs. 

If you want to learn more about how Web3 may be beneficial to your loyalty program, there's a useful guide below👇.

3. Cross-promotions and joint events

Most small businesses, regardless of industry, face the same fears. Questions like, "Will I attract enough customers?" and "How can I expand my business?" often loom large. Collaborative marketing efforts, where brands team up for a product launch, an event, or a promotion, can be a game-changer. Such partnerships help boost your cafe's visibility and draw more people through your doors.

For inspiration:

  • Could you collaborate with a local gym on a morning workout event where your coffee shop provides healthy morning drink alternatives?
  • Could you set up a cross-promotion where buying a coffee at your local shop earns you a discount at a nearby boutique, and vice versa?
  • Have you considered partnering with a local bookstore to host book club meetings at your cafe?
  • Why not form relationships with local artists to decorate your cafe walls with their work, making it available for any customer to purchase, and even host exhibitions of their art?
  • Have you thought about sponsoring community events like singles’  lunches, networking events, and parent/child days to engage niche audiences?

Cross-promotions may be daunting to set up, so you should be looking toward marketing strategies that make collaborations easier in the future. 

4. Pop-up shops

A pop-up shop is a temporary store that’s opened in a key location (also at a key time!) that sells a limited selection of products. Pop-up stores will tend to open up in clusters. Farmers’ markets, holiday markets, and festivals are all examples of venues you may see pop-up stores.

The benefit of setting up a pop-up shop is that it’s technically “marketing” as it also spreads the word about your brand while exposing your product to a new audience. However, you’re only renting the space and actively doing business, so it can be potentially profitable for your cafe. Pop-up shops can be expensive if research isn’t done into high-traffic locations and popular times of year. Plan accordingly, and you may have new regular customers that tried and enjoyed your brand.

5. Local bakery and produce partnerships

Most of us are partial to a croissant or a cake along with a coffee. But, the reality is that you may not have the kitchen space or capability to serve fresh pastries or food on demand. However, a local bakery or produce distributor may have a product that they’d be interested in selling through your cafe. 

While not as lucrative as making your own food, having great beverages and snacks can give your cafe a competitive edge over other similar coffee shops at little to no cost to you. You can even find local bakers or partners to provide specialty products, such as local honey or seasonal treats (looking at you, fall pumpkin baked goods). 

6. Branded merchandise

Maybe you already have hats, t-shirts, or hoodies for your employees. But what about selling these to the public? Branded merchandise may not be a product for new customers, but they are popular amongst your most dedicated customers (your brand advocates). 

Besides being a small extra revenue stream to your business, branded merchandise can act as free advertising. Similar to word-of-mouth recommendations, your branded merchandise can organically draw customers into your business. Additionally, consider theming your merch not just around your brand but also the area that you’re local to. Other popular coffee chains, like Starbucks, employ similar strategies when selling merchandise.

7. Social media engagement 

Not all marketing is free… or is it? Social media traffic is considered owned media, which means it’s media owned by you that you can produce with very little cost. Social media campaigns, especially when well-researched, can generate a lot of local attention. This is especially effective if your customer base falls in the Gen Z or Millennial demographics. 

Of course, it’s not easy to drum up traffic on social channels like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You’re competing for very limited attention spans amongst many, many other brands. 

However, you can look toward incentivizing customers to share stories about your cafe, or even follow your cafe’s social page for future promotions. If you have a loyalty program set up, reward them with some bonus points. If not, consider offering discounts for customers that engage with your social media posts.

8. Offline marketing

Some customers are easier to reach through traditional marketing methods. Traditional marketing may involve: 

  • Ad spots in local papers or on community center billboards 
  • Hand-written notes and leaflets
  • Advertisements in other local businesses (like hardware stores)
  • Promotional signs
  • Community boards

For close-knit communities with less tech-savvy people, offline marketing is still very effective. Remember, though, that although these marketing techniques are probably the most familiar to you, they shouldn’t be the only method you employ.

9. Community sponsorships

Popular community organizations will vary from town to town, but in the past we’ve seen cafes collaborate with local charities, schools, fundraisers, and awareness campaigns. These community organizations will generally regularly host events where a lot of people are gathered in a single space. This means that, yes, people will very quickly get hungry and thirsty. 

Partnering with these organizations can be a big opportunity for your cafe, as it guarantees a lot of business to you while advertising your brand to a potentially very large population. It will also, in the future, associate that organization with your brand and can be a great time for you to support a cause that your brand believes in. Everyone likes a brand that aligns with their values!

10. Tangential marketing

Who are your customers? I mean, really, what are they like? What other brands do they shop at? What do they do? What are some potential customers (or audience) out there that may be interested in your brand? 

Taking a long look at segments of your audience that you could increase your advertising with may reveal potential marketing opportunities with brands that are tangential - not competition - to your business. 

For example, if your cafe is in a rural area, you may look toward advertising in food delivery services or at popular restaurants in the area. 

11. Loyalty program and membership events

Planning or already implementing a loyalty or membership program? If your program isn’t already having a members-only event, you should seriously consider setting one up. 

Loyalty program events are pretty simple in concept: A social hour outside of regular business hours for your most loyal customers to get together, socialize, network, and maybe try out some new experimental products. But loyalty program events do so much more than just reward your loyalty program members. It starts to build a community around your brand and associates it with more than just transactions. Events will start to build emotional connections between your customers and your cafe!

12. Contests

Speaking of ideas that increase your customer engagement, hosting contests can be a new way for your brand to keep your customers thinking about and shopping with your brand. Contests can potentially be expensive to your brand, especially considering what the reward is, but will often be worth it during periods of time when business will naturally subside (such as the off-season).

13. Create a mascot

Anyone familiar with breakfast cereal has probably seen the power of an effective brand mascot. A mascot can potentially embody everything a brand stands for and be immediately recognizable anywhere. Mascots transcend all ages - you don’t even have to speak the same language to recognize the mascot of a brand. Duolingo is a good example of this. Their bird mascot "Duo" went viral through their Superbowl campaign.

Although there is a cost to design an iconic mascot, they can be incorporated into your merchandise and other marketing materials. Other brands have found success creating gifs, short videos, and social media posts themes around their mascots. Sometimes, the mascot’s popularity will even transcend your brand!

14. Local media contributions

For smaller communities, information about new cafes or restaurants may not quickly spread. Many people may have their local favorites and are hesitant to try out new places in the area. Contacting a local paper to write a food/drink column or testimonial on your new cafe can be a way for a trusted source to vouch for your brand to the community. Just don’t pester the local journalists too much, they’re busy!

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