Marketing at Scale: Kona Ice Manages Rapid Growth with a Tech Fix
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Marketing at Scale: Kona Ice Manages Rapid Growth with a Tech Fix

Marketing at Scale: Kona Ice Manages Rapid Growth with a Tech Fix

Kona Ice re-invented the traditional ice cream truck, serving up shaved ice in hundreds of flavor combinations from its colorful trucks and tropical steel drum music. Kona is also known for giving back, donating more than $50 million to local communities since 2007 through fundraisers for schools, sports teams, playgrounds, and other local causes.

Cultivating this unique brand has propelled the franchise from a startup with its first truck in 2007 to a national franchise organization with 1,200 trucks, operated by nearly 600 franchisees in all 50 states.

Scaling its marketing operation to serve its growing franchisee community was no small feat for the company, which handles all creative in house, including video and digital marketing. So how does Kona keep its cool while serving nearly 600 franchisees? Jessica Ross, Kona's head of branding and digital marketing, shares her thoughts on marketing at scale, which includes the right technology, partners, and a little patience.

Automation and working smarter. A couple of years ago, with only three designers on staff, Kona was straining to handle the volume of custom requests coming from its growing number of franchisees. "With a comparatively small corporate staff, it can be challenging to rein in so many franchisees," says Ross. "Our designers were spending lots of time on custom requests. We'd keep doing the same flyer, only changing contact information. We knew there had to be something better."

To solve the problem, Kona implemented a marketing resource management system, freeing the graphic design team from many of those custom requests, allowing them to work on more strategic initiatives.

Dialing in the marketing mix. Ross and her team focus their marketing spend on what they know will work. Kona also allocates some of corporate's budget to experimental initiatives. Kona hones the marketing mix with input from its Ad Council, 12 franchisees who meet with corporate marketing annually to discuss marketing activities for the year ahead. At these meetings, the corporate team presents recommendations, including one or two experimental ideas that address franchisee requests. This year Kona is testing the waters with programmatic advertising and influencer marketing.

Communication and franchisee engagement at scale. One of the biggest challenges is communicating a new initiative to hundreds of franchisees and getting everyone on board. "In the early days, it was like steering a speedboat," Ross recalls. "Now we're in 50 states, and it's like steering a cruise ship. We strive to get things done fast, but we need to remember that we need to bring 600 franchisees along with us."

Timing also is important. "We know the time of year when it's best to contact our franchisees, so we communicate with them then," she says. "At the end of May they are slammed with end-of-school-year events. We've worked our way through it, and I'm sure every franchise business does the same."

Keeping pace with the franchisee lifecycle. As a franchise business grows, the franchisee relationship matures. Once franchisees are in business for a few years, they become skilled at running their franchise and start looking for ways to continue their growth. This adds a different dimension to the support corporate marketing provides.

"There's a part of us that always wants to be able to cover the marketing for franchisees so they don't have to do it on their own," says Ross. "We're hearing from our established franchisees, and they want to know what's the next step. And it's always marketing. They want more leeway and customization so they can track their analytics. They want to dive deeper into their local marketing."

Kona is giving them more control while maintaining brand consistency with the marketing resource management system launched last year. Franchisees can print, fulfill, and track their localized marketing materials. This system also allows franchisees to send out their own emails, giving their messages a personal and local touch, as opposed to a corporate brand communication.

Maintaining perspective. To other franchise marketers, Ross advises them not to try doing everything themselves. "You do have to be nimble and do everything at the beginning. But when you get to that point when you can look to outside partners, do it," she says.

At the end of the day, Ross stresses Kona marketing's focus is on how they are helping the franchisees. "We always want to put them first. They are corporate's first customers, particularly in the marketing department."

Ross admits that it can be overwhelming adding so many franchisees so fast. But she says, "You just have to simplify it. That's why I ask myself these two questions at the end of each day: First, 'What did I do today for the brand?' And second, 'What did I do for the franchisees?' Then I know I've done my job."

 Liz Schaefer is director of client engagement at Vya, a provider of simplified marketing execution for franchise businesses and other distributed organizations. Contact her at or 513-552-0144.

Published: July 19th, 2019

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