Local First! Finding marketing success amid disruption
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Local First! Finding marketing success amid disruption

Local First! Finding marketing success amid disruption

Consumer marketing during the pandemic’s disruption has been shaped by how deftly brands and their franchisees have been able to meet customers’ changing needs—when finding them, much less engaging them, can be downright tricky these days. Battle-tested and battle-weary, messaging pros spent most of 2020 learning to shift their messaging with carefully crafted positioning and creative solutions they hoped would resonate on both the local and individual levels.

If it’s possible to put a marketing-like positive spin on the pandemic, Covid-19 has shown franchise systems the value of lightning-fast decision-making and execution. For many franchisors, the life of the brand and its franchisees depended on it. The pandemic compressed the usual timetable franchisors had planned to test, evaluate, and roll out new initiatives, from safety protocols to new goods and services to how to deliver them.

“We didn’t have that kind of luxury during this time,” says Mary Mills, vice president of marketing for College Hunks Hauling Junk & Moving. “We were making changes fast and furious, in a way that still allowed for communication and buy-in yet got us where we needed to be a lot faster.”

The Tampa-based moving and junk removal company wasted no time adapting its essential business model in the early days of the pandemic, offering contactless front door and curbside junk removal. To promote the new program and convey customer and employee safety measures in a reassuring way, the brand leaned heavily on public relations and digital messaging.

The usual on-the-ground awareness tactics franchisees had relied on for years (branded trucks, door hangers, yard signs) were temporarily shelved while the brand tripled down on social media and explored new avenues for awareness, such as the online neighborhood hub Nextdoor. Still, the pandemic put a serious crimp in its traditional marketing practices.

“A lot of brands are consultative or relationship-based in nature. You have to build those relationships, and some of that became harder during Covid,” says Mills. “Leaving junk at the curb was a great way to keep business going, but the downside was we couldn’t go in and talk with them, smile and shake their hand, and find out what other things we could do for them. All of a sudden, our consultative and relationship-focused business was more focused on convenience and safety, yet you want to preserve who you originally were. It’s a tight balance.”


Technology-fueled messaging strategies and a focus on hyper-local loyalty and retention campaigns are expected to dominate marketing in 2021, as brands with tight or shrinking budgets seek to optimize the experience and results at each location. The effort to keep loyal customers loyal will drive a 40% lift in the marketing messages consumers receive this year, especially through direct channels like email and mobile messaging, according to Forrester Consulting.

“There is no play in the playbook for third down in a global pandemic,” says Doug Zarkin, vice president and chief marketing officer at Pearle Vision. “Marketers and brands have really had to take stock of what makes them unique and special, and how to protect and reinforce that as far forward as you can so those who have committed to your brand stay committed to your brand.”

A back-to-basics approach has allowed Pearle Vision to come through the pandemic thriving so far, he says. Doing so required the eyecare franchise to take two steps backward to take “three very big steps forward,” says Zarkin. Declared an essential business, the company looked to its roots as a trusted brand built on serving local community needs. 

“There was a real recognition that consumers make emotional decisions before they make rational choices,” Zarkin says. “There needed to be a strong degree of empathy and recognition of the tensions that exist when someone leaves their home. We had to evolve our messaging in that regard, and also put out proof points that we had taken steps to ensure that the exam room and the retail floor provided a safe and enhanced safety experience.”

Almost all locations remained open throughout the pandemic. Resources were redirected toward enhanced safety procedures for its owners, employees, and patients, with initiatives deployed to send a message of caring. Along with a new contact lens e-commerce service for patients, the company launched a system-wide incentive for routine eye exams that would cover a patient’s out-of-pocket costs or co-pay as a credit against an eyewear purchase. National media buys were geo-targeted and locally focused to reinforce community connections.


Tech-savvy consumers have high expectations for their brands. Thanks to the power of local search and social sites, they want fast, accurate decision-making information tailored for their nearby location. Covid-19 has accelerated those expectations—and the challenges franchises face to scale their communication across locations that continue to operate under a myriad of restrictions and local and state health and safety guidelines. 

Trust and transparency are crucial to success, says CJ Ramirez, senior vice president of marketing for Dog Haus, the Pasadena-based gourmet hot dog, sausage, and burger chain (see Anatomy of a Brand in this issue).

As dining rooms closed nationwide last March, the brand’s founders fast-tracked the launch of The Absolute Brands, a restaurant group composed of Dog Haus and three delivery-only brands (Bad Mutha Clucka, Plant B, and Bad-Ass Breakfast Burritos) at its virtual kitchens and restaurants. In the coming months, the company will introduce four more virtual concepts, capitalizing on the exploding use of third-party delivery.

With Dog Haus locations spread across the country, Ramirez quickly saw the need for a local-first marketing strategy. Reputation management and store-level marketing on Instagram and Facebook, previously centrally managed, were placed in the hands of franchisees. Owners were encouraged to expand their teams to respond to the needs of customers during the pandemic. The brand quickly responded with safe initiatives to drive sales, including curbside pickup, an adapted grocery store model that sold a variety of essential foods at its restaurants, and the debut of The Absolute Brands. These combined efforts drove a massive spike in delivery sales. 

The debut of the virtual brands, along with social media advertising aimed at increasing awareness of the brand’s pickup and delivery options, were key to reversing the situation for Dog Haus. After a brief downturn, sales exceeded pre-pandemic same store levels by more than 13% for the past 6 months.

“That was the big discovery, that everyone is capable of fighting the fight,” says Ramirez. “What I want to do moving forward is to give more control to the franchisees. I want them to do more because I know they want to do more. I want them to do more because I trust them, and they want to do more because they recognize it’s good for their business.”

Whether it’s through people-to-people interactions or through the localization of digital tools, for Dog Haus it’s all about lifetime customer value. “Business today, from my perspective, must include technology, but not as an artificial voice. It must be a real human touch,” says Ramirez. “You can use technology to do it, as long as you monitor the tone as part of the process.”


The ever-changing business environment has reinforced the need to amplify communication—with both customers and franchisees—but in meaningful ways. 

Frenchies Modern Nail Care was founded in 2014 to flip the highly fragmented nail care industry on its head as a clean-and-green brand focused on an exceptional guest experience. Throughout the pandemic, the brand has harnessed the power of technology as a differentiator to keep it front and center for both consumers and franchise prospects. Frenchies, which boasts an extensive web presence, step-by-step marketing programs, and studio tracking metrics, encourages studio owners to seek meaningful ways to make personal connections, says Stacy Stout, vice president of marketing. Beauty care has always been a place for the community to gather, she says. 

“This was a reminder for us that we are very human-to-human business,” she says. “We advocate for our studio owners to think of ways to remind people, ‘You are a small business owner, you’re a part of large franchise national brand that helps you from an operational standpoint, which only benefits and supports their local community.’ These are small, local businesses, every one of them.”


Mining data to spot trends allows franchisors to avoid making consumer behavior-related changes in a vacuum. Ultimately, consumers will dictate what marketing moves brands make. The right message delivered to the right person at the right time remains at the heart of marketing. Resilient brands will be ready to anticipate change and act on it. 

“As great as I think we did navigating through this, if we don’t continue to watch, listen, and see what our customers are telling us, then we have pivoted somewhere that may no longer be relevant 6 months from now,” says Mills at College Hunks. “You have to meet consumers where they are, where they want to be, and how they want to communicate with you. If consumer behavior is changing, we are going to change right with them so we meet their needs, however they need us to.”

Riding the Localization Express

There is a tremendous opportunity in local digital marketing that most franchise brands have yet to realize, says Monica Ho, chief marketing officer of SOCi, a reputation and social media management platform for multi-location brands. Covid-related disruptions in operations highlight the critical need for franchise brands to operate and market with a local mindset. And today’s shifting landscape requires brands to make their presence known at each location—because if you don’t, someone else will. 

Consumers count on local search, review, social, and other third-party sites to make decisions on where to shop or dine, purchase products and services, or even buy a restaurant. Managing these messages and customer experiences requires brands to actively monitor their online reputation and presence to drive awareness, engagement, and sales at each location. 

Deploying local strategies across an entire system is complex. Multi-location marketers, constrained by insufficient resources, disjointed toolsets, and a lack of location-specific insights, have tended to default to a national focus, according to “The Localized Marketing Imperative: Why Multi-Location Marketers Must Harness Their Localized Presence To Compete in a New Marketplace,” a study by Forrester Consulting commissioned by SOCi.

But times are changing, says the report, which notes that most multi-location leaders have made improving marketing effectiveness at the local store level a high priority for 2021. Harnessing brand power through local consumer touchpoints begins with technology. 

“Multi-location marketers looking to achieve localized marketing success won’t find it by continuing to piece together partial solutions. There are too many disparate workflows and a lack of unified data and insights,” says Ho.

The good news is that emerging technologies have lowered some barriers for scaling and implementing local strategies across distant franchise locations. Using a single, centralized platform that allows a franchisor and all its locations to create and post content through social media or local search, or for tracking and responding to local reviews, reduces the need for large marketing teams, especially when marketing budgets are under pressure, says Ho. 

The study, which surveyed 154 decision-makers from multi-location businesses, found that centralized oversight and clearly defined responsibilities are key to localized marketing success, stating: “Solutions like these, when coupled with clear governance processes that tap into the strengths of corporate and local teams, can help marketers attain companywide consistency and a more personal, local touch.”


The Covid-19 pandemic has been the biggest reset for brands in a century. Almost overnight, companies have had to change how they create content, market services, distribute products, and take care of newly remote teams. Yet purpose-driven companies are likely already better positioned to ride out this time of extraordinary change—they know why they exist and who they’re built to serve, regardless of what they sell today.” (Deloitte)

Nearly a year of operating under the cloud of Covid-19 has pushed franchise consumer marketers to shift much of their face-to-face, in-store, commuter radio, and other out-of-home marketing online. Forced to shake up their usual strategies and tactics, marketers have found ways to be even more creative than usual as they seek ways to genuinely engage with and serve their customer base.

“One of my favorite expressions about marketing is that it is not about perfection, it’s about progress,” says Pearle Vision’s CMO Doug Zarkin. “We are constantly looking at our ability to connect with consumers.” Technology-enabled experiences, such as Pearle’s ABSee online tool for parents to screen their child’s vision at home, have caught on—by necessity.

Examples of creative initiatives and community programs initiated by brands during Covid abound across the U.S., tech-enabled or not. College Hunks, for example, launched a program during the pandemic to provide free moves for survivors of domestic violence and has expanded it systemwide.

A survey conducted by Deloitte (“Built to flourish: How purpose-driven companies navigate a Covid-19 world”) found that “when companies’ crisis responses are driven by a holistic purpose, they garner more attention and consumer interest.” In the survey of almost 2,500 global consumers, 79% recalled certain brands responding to Covid-19 by helping their customers, workforces, and communities. 

Purpose matters. According to Deloitte, “Organizations that know why they exist and who they are built to serve may be uniquely positioned to navigate unprecedented change.”

Published: January 31st, 2021

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Franchise Update Magazine: Issue 1, 2021
Franchise Update Magazine: Issue 1, 2021

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