Brookfield attempted to drum up sales for local businesses late in 2020 through a discount program called Brookfield Bucks, which was advertised on banners both on Grand Boulevard (above) and at Brookfield Zoo. While it wasn’t entirely successful, officials believe the program has laid the groundwork for future marketing efforts. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

Despite a less-than-stellar response to a novel Brookfield business marketing effort during the last quarter of 2020, elected officials say they’re interested in giving a Chicago-based digital marketing firm another shot at creating a program to help local businesses thrive despite a lingering pandemic.

As summer waned in Brookfield last year, officials implemented a number of initiatives to help out struggling local businesses, particularly bars and restaurants, by expanding outdoor dining and shutting down Grand Boulevard on weekends to allow for placement of more physically distant tables.

And they took something of a leap of faith by hiring the marketing company A5 Inc. to create Brookfield Bucks — a program where visitors who spent at least $15 at Brookfield Zoo could get a $15 discount if they made a purchase of $75 or more at a Brookfield business within a week of their visit.

It was then up to businesses that gave the discounts to submit paperwork for reimbursement from the village and the Brookfield Chamber of Commerce, which split the cost of the program.

Despite reservations that the $75 purchase minimum within a week’s time might be quite a hurdle, elected officials agreed to invest about $6,200 in village funds to create and execute Brookfield Bucks.

They did so, because it was a unique opportunity for the village to partner with Brookfield Zoo, which used its own marketing reach to advertise the program to its more than 400,000 Facebook followers and the thousands who visited the zoo during the last four months of 2020.

A5 created banners, counter cards and posters that were displayed in Brookfield and at Brookfield Zoo to promote the program. The firm also secured a commitment from the zoo to promote the program on social media and through emails to members and non-members.

A5 also employed a digital strategy known as geofencing to push digital ads across apps and websites to zoo visitors’ cellphones.

When the figures were tallied after the program expired Dec. 31, the village handed out just five reimbursements – all to the same business, Tischler Finer Foods.

One way to look at it is that as little as $375 was spent at Brookfield businesses as a result of Brookfield Bucks. But, Assistant Village Manager George Issakoo, who administered the program for village hall, added he had heard anecdotally that there were other businesses that had given the discounts but did not follow through seeking reimbursement, because the process was too cumbersome or they didn’t feel it was worth the effort for such a small amount of money.

The lack of response, though a disappointment, was not a total loss, Brookfield officials decided.

“The biggest, most positive thing that has come out of this has been the partnership not only with our chamber of commerce and our local businesses, which we do on a consistent basis, but also with the Brookfield Zoo,” said Village President Kit Ketchmark during a discussion wrapping up the Brookfield Bucks program at the village board’s Jan. 25 committee of the whole meeting.

Ketchmark noted that the village has found it difficult to partner with the zoo, since officials there are keen to have visitors stay and spend their money inside the park, and are less interested in sending them elsewhere.

“This I believe was the first time we have partnered in something like this,” Ketchmark said. “Maybe there’s an opportunity separate from a particular program where we’re offering discounts that we’re able to partner with the zoo. Maybe there’s a way to market Brookfield within the zoo separate from a Brookfield Bucks-type program.”

John Harris, principal of A5 Inc., admitted to trustees on Jan. 25 that the Brookfield Bucks program had its challenges. First, launching a marketing campaign during a pandemic when crowd sizes at the zoo were limited was not ideal.

The company also learned through the experience that 80 percent of zoo visitors were members who paid nothing for admission and little to nothing for parking. That meant the $15 spend to trigger the offer had to be made elsewhere in a zoo where retail shops and restaurants were closed due to the pandemic.

Harris also suggested simplifying any program in the future to make it more attractive to customers and local businesses.

“With more of a one-step/two-step offer, it would probably yield stronger redemptions,” Harris said.

While it’s not clear just what kind of a marketing program the village might employ as the weather improves in 2021, trustees appeared eager to give it another shot.

“I don’t want to bail on this, nor do I want to wait until the winter to do anything either,” said Trustee Edward Cote. “People maybe will be out in May, June and maybe that’s when we start targeting for the summer months. … I think there’s still opportunity here.

Harris said making a program simple and engaging local businesses to participate would be important for success. He also encouraged the village to look at marketing as a long-term strategy.

“One of the things we know is that marketing is successful when it’s consistent and over time,” he said. “This was in our view a good first step and start and provides a foundation for you to move forward with some type of program sometime in the future.”