If you cruise along I-90 in South Dakota for long enough, two thoughts will cross your mind. First, “could this road be any more boring?” And second, “good God, how many Wall Drug signs are there?”

Over 300. And that’s just the official ones found in South Dakota, Wyoming, and even Minnesota.

If you’ve never actually been to Wall Drug, you might think it’s an enormous store like the Mall of America. After all, who else could afford to spend so much money on signs?

The truth is stranger – it’s a kitschy, bizarre little strip mall in the nowhere-land of Wall, South Dakota. The population of the town is 699, and the store employs at least 165 of them.

The store itself is interesting as a tourist trap, but it’s even more interesting as a marketing study. It’s a classic case study in how to make something out of absolutely nothing.

What is Wall Drug?

Wall Drug, put simply, is a drug store, gift shop, and restaurant. It’s also 76,000 square feet in size, which makes it larger than your typical Costco or Buc-ee’s. You’ll find it just off I-90 in the town of Wall, South Dakota, about an hour and 15 minutes east of Mount Rushmore and a few miles away from the Badlands National Park.

Of course, Wall Drug is one of those places where describing it in plain language completely misses the point. This is Weird Marketing Tales, and I don’t make a habit of talking about normal places. After all, a simple store off the highway would not attract millions of visitors per year.

Wall Drug is the Mecca of American kitsch. Walk in and you’ll immediately notice the benches with cowboy and prospector statues sitting on them. There are fake wanted posters on the walls.

There’s a drugstore. Multiple gift shops. And there’s a church, because why wouldn’t there be?

The video above calls it a “western mini-mall” and a “western Disneyland without the rides.” The cafeteria – which haven’t tried to be perfectly transparent – is said to be really good too. You can still – to this day – get coffee for a nickel, just like you could during the Great Depression.

I bought a lot of Christmas presents during my brief stop at Wall Drug, ranging from genuinely tasteful home decor to toys for my niece and nephew. This is also the same trip during which I watched a light-up dinosaur roar to a crowd of people holding out their cell phones to catch it on video.

To be perfectly frank with you, dear reader, I’m actually leaning on video in this article simply because Wall Drug tries so hard to defy clear categorization. That’s part of its appeal – you have to see it and be there to actually understand what’s going on. People say the name over and over again while trying to describe what on earth this kitschy place they stopped at is actually all about.

But that’s the whole point – spectacle. (I’ll get back to that in a minute.)

Kitschy or not, the individual residents of the town of Wall are probably doing better because Wall Drug exists

There is no reason to go to Wall, South Dakota. There are a couple of reasons to pass through it, though. Mount Rushmore is close and the Badlands National Park is even closer. But in most towns in America, Wall would exist mostly just to be a gas station town.

But if you read this blog, you know we love it when small towns get creative. These “tourist traps” are actually pretty good for the local economy and make some tough places more economically viable. A town not terribly far from me in Tennessee turned a prison into a museum and it’s been wonderful for the state economy. Kansas has done a beautiful job of making tourism dollars in a state that would otherwise be known for…corn.

Wall wouldn’t be completely up a creek without Wall Drug. It’s the closest town to the Badlands, so it would be able to sell gasoline and maybe some souvenirs. It’s close to the interstate, which is the equivalent of being close to a railroad in the late 1800s. It even has a small general aviation airport. But Wall Drug has to be helping the local economy a lot.

Wall, if you look at the census in 2000, shows that the average family was making below the median income. Yet at the same time, a lower percentage of people than the national average actually fell below the poverty line.

It’s impossible to know what Wall would look like without Wall Drug. Yet I have to imagine that without an abundance of entry-level jobs tied to Wall Drug, more people in that town would be in poverty. Sure, the pay probably isn’t great – I honestly couldn’t tell you – but some pay definitely beats no pay.

This goofy store is most likely keeping a small town afloat. But why does Wall Drug work in the first place?

Understanding why roadside tourist traps work

To understand why Wall Drug works, you first need to understand why roadside tourist traps can function so well as a business despite many critics decrying them as being pointless. Pointlessness is the point. Novelty breaks up the dullness of the road.

Again, take Kansas for example. It’s considered – in my opinion, unfairly – to be an unattractive, uninteresting state. But their tourism industry is doing surprisingly well. They pull in $12 billion a year according to the Kansas Tourism Board. And that’s partly because they understand the nature of roadside tourist traps.

Shout out to the world’s largest ball of twine.

Driving through America, particularly the midwest and interior west, is brutal. The landscape can be uniform and towns can be far apart. If you’re not smart about how you plan your travel, you can be in one of the darkest parts of the lower 48 and willing to pay $150 to sleep in a dirty Super 8 in Sheridan, Wyoming. The amount of driving through unchanging landscapes will tax your soul.

If you’ve got places to be in a hurry, you just fly. Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas – they all understand that people traveling through the states are looking for adventure. They’re not traveling by road for cost-efficiency and certainly not to save time. A disproportionate amount of travelers in those areas are road trippers. Road trippers rank pretty high in “openness to experience.”

Openness to experience is a “Big Five” personality trait that involves having an active imagination, curiosity, and a preference for variety. This is a group of people, psychologically, who are just begging for something interesting to happen in a place where nothing interesting is happening.

So when Wall Drug starts teasing those drivers, hinting at something interesting a few miles down the road, well…these folks want to stop.

They have to.

It’s their psychology.

How to build name recognition from scratch – Wall Drug’s masterclass in branding

I have a client who’s working a board game called Vrahode. It’s truly amazing what’s he’s doing, but it’s a brand new fantasy world based on a made-up nonsense word that no one would ever think to search. (Here’s a podcast if you want the whole story!)

He had to do what Wall Drug had to do in the 1930s – build brand recognition from scratch. Nobody would ever look up his game if they weren’t given a reason. Likewise, no one would stop at Wall Drug unless given a reason.

Here’s what Wall Drug did to build their brand recognition from zero. Anyone can copy this playbook.

  1. They picked a name and stylized fonts. Consistency is key in branding, so they narrowed this down early.
  2. Then they narrowed down their messaging. Wall Drug started out advertising ice water to hot, thirsty drivers. They offered coffee for a low price, too. They figured out exactly what drivers were going to want, and focused on that.
  3. Wall Drug said their name over and over again. With Wall Drug, this means putting billboards all over the highway. With my client, it means saying the same word over and over again on the internet until people remember it. When starting out, sheer repetition can make a huge difference in whether people remember.

Then the details start to differ and every business must proceed differently. But what Wall Drug did was distill the roadside attraction experience down to its core of “look at these dumb things to amuse you while you get off the highway for a minute!” Then they wrapped that in a faux western strip mall with old-timey fonts and made sure every piece of decor reinforced the idea.

And look – it works. I’m talking about it on a marketing blog right now.

The virtuous cycle of Wall Drug

Regardless of whether you love it or hate it, it’s undeniable that Wall Drug is a cleverly run business. In order to get customers to stop in the middle of nowhere, you have to promise some kind of weird experience. You have to catch their eye and get them interested enough to stop. It’s a tricky balance – reveal too much and they pass you by due to a lack of curiosity and a desire to get to their destination, say too little and they don’t even know you’re there.

Like Buc-ee’s, Wall Drug spams the interstate with billboard after billboard. What is this place that offers free ice water and five-cent coffee, western wear and souvenirs? You know as you’re driving that this is going to be some kind of bizarre, chaotic place, but enough people feel compelled to stop.

And, of course, if you’ve watched any of the videos embedded in this article or simply read what I’ve had to say, you know Wall Drug delivers on the expectations. They suggest they’re going to be a kitschy chaos store and quelle surprise, they give you a kitschy chaos store. People remember things like the weird dinosaur that roars and makes a ton of noise, or fortune-telling Zoltar machine that takes your dollars while revealing little. They remember the old west fonts and the wooden walls and the framed photos littered throughout the store. It’s memorable.

So, as a result, customers end up telling their friends about this weird store in South Dakota. Then their friends drop by. Referrals!

Eventually, it becomes enough of a phenomenon to show up in books and movies. It becomes a part of American road-tripping lore. Little by little, Wall Drug became a genuine American cultural icon, pulling in ever more customers.

Final Thoughts

Looking at roadside attractions like Wall Drug can teach us a ton about marketing. After all, it’s tough to get the attention of a passing motorist and tougher still to get them to stop. And yet for Wall Drug, and a lot of other places like it, they do.

Their branding must be precise and their messaging concise to get people to stop in the first place. But Wall Drug takes it to the next level – they are a cultural icon and have proven be very successful at getting people to tell their friends to go. To me, this is a clear sign that they’ve crafted an experience that people want to talk about, even if it seems like “low culture” to the critical eye.

When you’re running your own business, think about Wall Drug when you’re defining your own plans. How are you going to get people to stop? What can you say that will make your target audience stop for long enough to want to know more?

How can you create an experience they will want to tell their friends about? How can you prompt them to do so?

If Wall Drug – a silly store in a dusty town in the middle of absolutely nowhere – can build a successful business with smart branding and advertising, then you can too. You just have to ask the right questions and keep pivoting until you have answers that clearly resonate.

Featured photo credit: Brendan Baker, CC BY 2.0. Flickr.