All students have a type, whether they want to admit it or not: trendy, touristic, edgy.
More specifically, Georgetown students usually prefer one of three main styles, represented by Sprinkles, Georgetown Cupcake and Baked & Wired. When they aren’t comparing how little sleep they got the night before with each other, Georgetown students might be seen arguing which off-campus cupcake store is the best.
What adds a layer of complexity to the dessert debate are the ways each shop has cultivated its image and brand via a plethora of digital platforms.
In the past, businesses controlled the aesthetic of their establishments strictly through interior design choices and print advertisements. In the last few years, however, social media and food review websites have allowed these businesses to develop a distinct character in new and exciting ways.
Each Georgetown dessert shop — whether its main fare is cupcakes, donuts or cookie dough — vies for consumer attention in the highly saturated dessert quarter of Washington, D.C., through a diverse array of advertising platforms. Television and social media offer opportunities to reach audiences outside of the District and mark Georgetown as a dessert fanatic’s dreamland, while in-store decor defines their distinct aesthetics and keeps sugar fiends returning for more sweet treats.
Competing on Streets and Airwaves
National cupcake chains, such as Georgetown Cupcake and Sprinkles, reach out to audiences across the United States using the power of television. Rather than buying commercial space, these shops partner with lifestyle programs on TLC and Food Network to create national followings — which translate into long lines outside their physical locations.
Georgetown Cupcake, which opened on Potomac Street in 2008, has since moved to M Street and opened six locations from Los Angeles to Atlanta. The TLC television show “D.C. Cupcakes” covered the daily happenings of Georgetown Cupcake over three seasons starting in 2010. Though the series ended in 2013, the “Cupcake Cam” still runs constantly on the TLC website, allowing fans to watch live footage of icing being made and cupcakes being packaged.
A few blocks east on M Street, Sprinkles, which was founded in Beverly Hills in 2005, competes for cupcake consumers on the streets of Georgetown and over the airwaves.
Sprinkles founder Candace Nelson has been a judge on the Food Network show “Cupcake Wars,” as well as a guest judge on Top Chef Junior on Food Network and Sugar Rush on Netflix.
Sprinkles has also received celebrity endorsements from Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey, who featured the cupcakes on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Star power is not the only way that Sprinkles fights to attract customers. Sprinkles uses “Cupcake ATMs” to dispense up to 600 cupcakes per day, 24 hours a day at its12 locations across the country. The automated dispensing process is not only powerful for its novelty — it also helps increase the volume of transactions by allowing more avenues for purchase.
Although the Georgetown location lacks this automated dessert dispenser, the Cupcake ATM is featured prominently on its website, making the innovation a key branding tool to distinguish the shop from the competition.
Even in a media-dominated era, the atmosphere of a restaurant’s physical location is still important for retaining customers. Baked & Wired, a cupcake and coffee shop on Thomas Jefferson Street in Georgetown, opened in 2001, focuses on cultivating a welcoming experience for customers.
When patrons enter Baked & Wired, they are greeted to a bar of delicious-looking cupcakes displayed in glass cases with hand-drawn signs in front of them illuminated by a row of hanging lights. The long room branches off into a lounge area and the adjoining coffeeshop that cultivate a boutique yet rustic aesthetic. On the walls, the shop monthly features local artists. In an interview with The Hoya, Tessa Velazquez, operations director of Baked & Wired, explained their goal to create a memorable atmosphere.
“We have a genuine experience that goes along with our great products,” Velazquez said. “You’re going to have a memory of being there. We always make sure to have nice staff greeting you, always playing fun music and keeping a funky vibe.”
The dessert shop also tries to stay hip with the potential double meanings of the store title, “Baked & Wired,” and many of its creative and edgy product names like “Uniporn and Rainho” and “Elvis Impersonator AKA the Unporked Elvis.”
Another D.C. dessert shop that opened last summer, The Dough Jar Scoop Shop on Wisconsin Avenue, tries to build a neon-lit, fantastical environment for customers’ inner child. Walking inside The Dough Jar, customers will discover a rainbow-happy, laid-back vibe where cookie dough is available by the cone or cupful with a range of fun toppings. The bright swirl of colors as well as the “Treat ‘dough self’” neon sign that hangs on the wall keeps the mood light.
Decor is used for more than creating an experience for the stores’ patrons; it can also facilitate promotion on social media, Lindsay Goldin, CEO of The Dough Jar said in an email with The Hoya.
“We also wanted to make our space and our product very Instagram-able, so our space is super photogenic and fun,” Goldin said.
As social media becomes increasingly important in marketing, the physical and digital aspects of marketing have become more intertwined.
While customers are taking aesthetically pleasing photos of their artisanal cupcakes, Georgetown’s dessert shops are also using social media to create their brand and win pastry enthusiasts’ loyalty.
Pie Sisters, located on M street, sells sweet and savory pies of all sizes. Pie Sisters maintained a blog, “The Dish,” promoting local charity events. Even though the blog has not been updated since 2016, the pastry shop still regularly updates their pages on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Like Pie Sisters, Goldin from the Dough Jar recognizes the power of social media.
“Social media has been a huge part of our marketing strategy. Our target customers are millennials, so we do a lot of posting and promotions on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook,” Goldin said. “We partner with social media influencers, and we do giveaways and cross-promotions on social media.”
The Dough Jar posts colorful pictures of its products adorned with bright sprinkles and candy almost every day on its social media platforms. District Doughnut takes a similar approach, with an extra weapon in their arsenal: slow-motion videos of their production processes. In one post, a curtain of vanilla bean glaze slowly descends over a tray of handmade donuts to the sound of Ray Charles.
In addition to social media marketing strategies, review sites like Yelp have made getting attention for businesses easier than ever; consumers themselves generate advertisements with little effort from the business.
Baked & Wired’s Velasquez shared how review sites have shifted the onus of advertising from businesses to consumers.
“We’ve never had to pay for advertising because we believe other reviews have effectively done that for us,” Velasquez said.
Social media and television attract national audiences, but the physical spaces contribute to the experiences that help customers find their favorite dessert joint in Georgetown’s crowded market for sweets.
Storefronts and products must be carefully curated to cater to a camera lens. In a world ruled by followers and likes, brand appearance matters now more than ever.
Disclaimer: One of the writers for this article, Arden Fitzpatrick, works at Georgetown Cupcake.