Coastal Branding Tactics for Heartland Cities

cake bake.jpg

Indianapolis Monthly magazine just ran an interesting feature article on Gwendolyn Rogers, proprietor of a local store called the Cake Bake Shop. I have never been to it and am not the target market. But I thought there were a few interesting elements to it that are relevant not just to marketing businesses but cities.

Rogers is not an Indianapolis native. She spent time living in Los Angeles and Idaho before arriving there. She had worked for a modeling agency in LA and her husband worked in the film industry. Perhaps because they both worked in the entertainment sector, Rogers understands the power of celebrity for marketing, and how to go about getting celebrities to help promote your product. This appears to have been a big part of how she built her business up.

In 2014, she opened her bakery from scratch. She created the recipes, seeking the finest ingredients, no matter the cost. She designed the restaurant, the decor, the packaging. Four years later, customers line up to purchase cakes that top out at $210. Her gift cards hang at Costco. Williams-Sonoma sells her cakes online. She has won awards and has a celebrity following, from Steve Martin to Paula Deen. This spring, the baker debuts her biggest challenge to date—a 3,600-square-foot Cake Bake restaurant in the heart of Carmel.

Rogers smiles. Her mouth quivers. Even she can’t believe how big everything has gotten, how big she is dreaming. In the beginning, she just wanted to take financial pressure off her husband and put her three boys through college. She did not expect to sell 1,200 slices of cake a day, as she did one recent Friday. She did not expect to land on Oprah’s “O” list.

There’s another essential ingredient to Rogers’s success, one that plays out in real time as the owner greets a woman at one of Cake Bake’s little round tables. She returns to the bar brimming with excitement. “Her husband just happens to be Darius Rucker’s agent,” Rogers says. “I am going to see Darius Rucker tonight and I love him, and she’s like, ‘I’m going to get you in there.’ So I was like, ‘I want to bring him a cake,’ and she was like, ‘Let me call my husband right now.’”

This is Rogers’s signature move. She slips a pretty foot in the back door. Brings celebrities a free cake. Someone snaps a picture. Rogers posts it on social media. Orders flood in. If you can’t be Matt Damon, you can at least eat the same cake.

Of course, it doesn’t always work. John Mellencamp never responded, though six months later one of his people bought a bunch of cakes to take back to Bloomington. The Darius Rucker gambit may not pan out.

“We’ll see what happens,” Rogers says. “We’ll have to follow up with this story. I’ll let you know if I made it.”

I find this interesting because very few independent retail shop owners in cities like Indianapolis would ever even think about trying to leverage celebrity endorsements for brand building. Rogers, with her LA experience, thinks about it all the time.

I was reminded of the micro-distiller Cardinal Spirits that I profiled for CityLab. Their co-founder had lived in Brooklyn for many years, and so understood the value of going after the NYC market and the high end press there, resulting in getting featured by the Wall Street Journal and New York Times – and CityLab. He was also not intimidated by the prospect of doing so.

It seems to me that interior cities could do a much better job of leveraging these types of marketing approaches to sell themselves as places. But few seem to do so, possibly because it’s just not on their mental map, and also because they don’t know how it works and/or feel intimidated. That might help explain Nashville’s superior marketing skill. The music industry there always had to manufacture buzz to sell its product, so that same mindset and skill set translated to selling the city. What’s more, the same companies that do business in Nashville are also in New York and LA and London, so there are connections to leverage.

Brooks appears to be a natural marketer. She also created a sort of fairy land aesthetic for her shop, with tremendous attention to detail, and plastered her logo all over everything. Here’s a pic from their Instagram.

It’s a bit rococo for my taste, but apparently the customers love it. From the article:

The tiny restaurant is heavily decorated, a cross between a French bistro and the inside of a coconut snowball. Lavish garlands festoon the windows. Towering cakes resemble the hats Southern women wear to church. Cookies and brownies sparkle. Literally. They’re topped with Pixie Glitter, edible dust Rogers trademarked and sells online. Men in pink vests and silver neckties and women in matching aprons greet customers. Mozart plays.

She had her eye on a Broad Ripple cottage she thought would make a good bakery, but she had to secure a bank loan and renovate it. She built fake cherry trees and hunted down twinkling lights from the Netherlands. She shopped all over for uniforms, then had the idea to embroider her logo over the back pockets of the khakis so staffers couldn’t carry their cell phones.

“It’s not enough for it to taste good,” she says. “It has to look good, too.”

Other keys to her success: A masterful marketer, she puts her logos and patterns on everything, from rubber spatulas to pens to take-out napkin rings. It also helps to have a husband with Hollywood connections. And her timing was good. She rode the heels of the cupcake explosion ignited by Magnolia Bakery in New York City and Candace Nelson, who opened her first Sprinkles shop in Beverly Hills in 2005. But don’t call Cake Bake a cupcake shop.

I don’t tend to frequent cake shops, but I’m not aware of any stereotypes about gentrified cake shops to match that for coffee shops, barbecue joints, etc. So far as I know her aesthetic isn’t just from the urban extruder, though someone may correct me on this. This helps it stand out.

Who knows whether she will succeed or fail in the future, but to have survived as long as she has selling a product at a price point far above what the extremely price conscious Hoosier market is used to paying says something.

If you read the piece you’ll also notice that she’s honed her origin story to create a mythos around her path. Like a number of these origin stories, it includes taking a crazy leap of faith, in her case buying plane tickets to London for a contest that she hadn’t even been selected to participate in yet but ended up winning. De l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace! You an get a sense of these origin stories and how they are constructed simply by reading magazine profiles of people.

By saying that she honed her origin story, that’s not to suggest that she made it up but rather that she took the facts of her life and created a compelling narrative out of the right parts of it with elements of the mythic, the heroic, vulnerability, etc. Frankly, it’s a to-do item for me. It’s also a to-do item for cities. How can they create that authentic backstory and mythos that points forward to something aspirational people want to be a part of?

This piece originally appeared on Urbanophile.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

Photo: Via The Cake Bake Shop Instagram.