Out of the American West came a term that has changed meaning from its use by the vaqueros herding cattle 100 years ago, to that of today's slick marketers of products and services. That word (or buzzword) is branding. In a world of instant communication, in which images whirl by us daily through multiple media, branding is crucial to success for both individuals and corporations.
For area developers, the issue of branding has its own, unique twist. "Buying a franchise means buying into ready-made branding," says David Lucas, a strategic planner and branding expert based in Las Vegas. Part of the beauty of the relationship, he says, is that control of all the brand's messaging is done by the franchisor. "There are no mixed messages communicated by the various franchisees," says Lucas.
The brand is established by the franchisor, of course. Without that, you might as well start from scratch (and who wants to do that?). Corporate headquarters provides your main message, signage, uniforms, décor, and menu, but making the brand local or regional is the franchisee's job--and demands something more than what the franchisor supplies.
According to Martin Lindstrom, author of Clicks, Bricks & Brands, "A global brand-building strategy is, in reality, a local plan for every market." So, what does it mean to create a local marketing plan? How can you maximize your ready-made brand? Rely on the help of some top branding experts and follow five key tips to success.
"A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person," says Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com. "You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well." In your community, your reputation may be the deciding factor between a customer's choice of your store over another. How can you translate reputation into concrete terms? It's not as difficult as it might sound. Experts typically suggest that quality, consistency, competency, and reliability are four tangible elements (among others) that you can demonstrate to your clients.
A matron new to a small community in Florida visited several fast-food outlets in her neighborhood. They included Wendy's, Arby's, McDonald's, Long John Silver's, Taco Bell, Checkers, and several others. "They're all pretty much the same," she says, "except when it comes to cleanliness and service." After several weeks, she took time to write to the owner of the outlet she believed epitomized all that was good about this particular fast-food restaurant, stressing its cleanliness, efficient service, and very friendly and helpful young staff. When no response came from the storeowner after several weeks, she took her appetite and her money elsewhere.
Not responding to customers who make the effort to compliment your reputation and that of your staff is a quick way to lose customer loyalty. "Branding is about communicating with your customers," says Lucas. And personally communicating with them one-on-one should be considered a privilege.
"You must localize and personalize a national product," Lucas says. "If your particular shop is located in a young urban professional neighborhood, your plan would be quite different than in a retirement area in which senior citizens played a large role. This means that franchisees are required to do some cause-related marketing with local public relations and events."
Before considering any local plan, carefully study the demographics of your community. From that information, develop appropriate events at your store that will attract new customers and keep existing ones coming back. Use some simple ideas from authors Al and Laura Ries in their book The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding. To make a local impact, they say, try the following: "A blurb in a magazine. A mention in a newspaper. A comment from a friend. A display in a retail store."
Truett Cathy, founder of Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A, claims his customers become cheerleaders for his business: "They're worth more than TV and radio."
Marketing gurus advise you to make "ambassadors" of your guests. Find ways to reward frequent customers, to make them feel special, and to make them want to tell others about your businesses. One quick-service restaurant in California even has name tags for its special guests, which they wear when they come in for a meal. The staff always treats them as special, and other customers want to get in on that. Some customers even use the name tags when they go to other functions--a kind of marketing that's impossible to buy.
Employees too, can be worth more than any advertising you can buy. As members of your community, their job satisfaction can be a make-or-break proposition. Disgruntled personnel, on or off the job, do not reflect well on a small-town or regional operation, no matter what its national brand.
Building friendly relationships among competitors in your area also can boost community relations. A willingness to co-sponsor or partner with other franchises, for instance, to support local high school team sports or to raise funds for a worthy community cause can put your name on the local map.
Creative marketing genius Sir Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin, often says: "Branding demands commitment." If you invest in a ready-made brand, you have already exhibited your dedication to that product or service. So, commitment to what, exactly, could he mean?
Part of the brand's attraction at Chick-fil-A is the Cathy family's philosophy of treating its employees well. On average, fewer than five percent of Chick-fil-A operators leave the chain in any given year, with most remaining with the company for more than 20 years. The organization works hard to hire the right employees, then helps them by encouraging their education through scholarships, and their family relations through a unique marriage retreat. The company's commitment to the well-being of its personnel at its 1,250 restaurants includes closing on Sundays to give them a chance "to recover physically, emotionally, and spiritually."
Jean-Noel Kapferer, professor of marketing strategy at HEC Graduate School of Management in France, wrote in (Re)Inventing the Brand, "A brand's strength is built upon its determination to promote its own distinctive values and mission." What distinctive values does your local operation have that derive from your ready-made branding? Do you have a local mission in addition to your branded mission? Are those values and that mission posted for your staff to review every day? Do those values include common-sense practices such as good manners and good grooming for employees? Courtesy to customers and neatness on the job are quiet messages to customers that your team is the brand's front line of representation.
A public war of words between employees can destroy the culture that your brand's corporate office expects its franchisees to maintain.
Making the extra effort to engage with other local businesses can promote your values, too. In one Florida community, a local florist provides simple, fresh, colorful bouquets in rotation to convenience shops and gas stations close to its stores. Not only is the florist's brand in front of hundreds of customers in busy nearby stores, the flowers improve the appearance of every counter and gain the goodwill of the neighboring merchants. "Nearly everyone comments on the arrangements, and it puts us in a good mood," says one convenience store clerk. It's easy to remember what florist to call when a special occasion comes around.
By mentally dissecting your business with an objective outlook, you can find easy ways to maximize your brand. Your goal is to localize, personalize, commit, promote, and then deliver something remarkable to the folks who frequent your business. Billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett wraps it all up in a simple statement: "Your premium brand had better be delivering something special, or it's not going to get the business."
Something as simple as remembering a customer counts--and goes a long way. One older customer regularly frequented a Mrs. Winner's franchise for breakfast. After a year of weekly visits, he became quite ill and was hospitalized, then homebound for months. Once recovered, his first trip away from home was to Mrs. Winner's for his favorite breakfast. He shyly confessed upon his return that even after his long absence, the server immediately recognized him and recalled exactly what he always ordered. "She remembered me," he smiled. "That was something special."
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