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  • John Walker

Why Zoetropolis Cinema Stillhouse is a Great Local Brand

Updated: Jan 28


I just saw Fantastic Fungi at Zoetropolis. It’s a documentary about fungus.

I showed my ticket, I bought a beer and I settled into my seat which was an old couch set amidst a jumble of worn easy chairs. The lights went down and I watched a remarkable nature story that captivated me for two hours. Then my friends and I walked next door, had a cocktail and talked about the movie.


Zoetropolis Cinema Stillhouse has grown from an odd beginning into one of my favorite places in Lancaster City. In its old location, tucked deep inside a labyrinth of hallways in a partially renovated office building, it hosted local bands, stand-up comedians, private parties and some truly weird movies. Slowly it built a local following, then it made a big bet by moving downtown. Now it’s one of the hubs of Lancaster’s local entertainment scene, and the experience it delivers says a lot about what makes a great brand, whether local or national.


A unique customer experience with integrity

What I experienced watching Fantastic Fungi was a customer experience with integrity, not one designed by marketers. Zoetropolis is quirky with it's local-band ads before the movie, it's old chairs and a selection of movies that are sometimes surprising and sometimes just downright bizarre. It retains elements from its original incarnation, like the mishmash of couches and easy chairs for seating. And it adds new elements like a beer menu- a long one full of local microbrews.


I suspect the owners are unabashed about what’s unpolished; they’re doing it their own way and, as a result, it's unlike any other movie theatre.


Even calling Zoetropolis a movie theatre is a stretch. It’s like calling Cirque du Soleil a circus. Both are hard to classify. They’re entertainment experiences that aren’t like any others. They mix together common ingredients in a totally unique way. Zoetropolis offers Indy movie + beer + creative food + quirky décor, a weird and wonderful combination.


The result is an offering that’s so unique there aren’t any competitors. In fact, it would be hard for competitors to match it even if they wanted to because Zoetropolis’ brand ingredients have been cooked together over time mostly by synchronicity.


Marketing to amplify the brand not “build it”

Ad agencies like to say they “build brands” but that would not be not the case for Zoetropolis, or for many great local brands that have grown without significant advertising.


The Zoetropolis experienced isn’t stage managed by marketers, it happens through the alchemy of the owners’ choices rubbing up against real customer experiences.

If Zoetropolis chose to advertise, it would be for the purpose of amplifying its existing brand experience to a wider audience, not creating an idealized one.


Great local brands are visions come to life- the dreams that entrepreneurs give to customers. Such is Zoetropolis. We marketers serve these entrepreneurs by broadcasting their visions to wider audiences. And often, when ad budgets are lean, marketing consists of just amplifying word-of-mouth discussion about the place.


May I end with a fungus reference? Local brands like Zoetropolis quietly undergird and anchor local economies just as underground networks of fungi do the same for natural ecosystems. Too much? Well, visit Zoetropolis and see for yourself. You might even learn something about mushrooms.


This post was written by John Walker, principal consultant at J. Walker Marketing. Contact John today to discuss your marketing challenges. John@JWalkerMktg.com.

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