Franchising can be a very powerful way to grow your brand, but it is a way of branding a business that has very specific characteristics and challenges.
Franchising works best as a replication strategy. I often describe the best franchising models as a powerful marriage of brand and systems. It can work very powerfully when you want to build out a scale-based business that delivers customers a combination of familiar presence and quantified experiences. Having said that, far too many franchise brands to my mind are cookie-cutter. You could change out the brands and most customers wouldn’t know the difference. If you are looking to franchise the brand you’ve worked so hard to build, here are four things you can do to avoid it looking like all the other franchising options.
Start as you mean to continue
Consistency is both a lynchpin and a millstone for brands looking to franchise. Too often franchise brands fail to separate consistency of system, which requires everything to conform and align in order to achieve efficiency and predictability, with differentiation in strategy.
They also mistake their history and their potential. People invest in franchises because they are proven to work. But what works at a one store or two store level will not necessarily work that well at scale. As with any brand, unless you start franchising with a clear point of difference from everyone around you, you will quickly find yourself fighting for recognition from within the pack.
In fact, it’s precisely because franchising is based on ‘more of the same’ that your brand cannot be the same as everyone else’s. If you develop an ice-cream franchise that looks like every other ice-cream chain, you simply become less interesting as you expand – which defeats the whole point of being a franchise in the first place. You are still basing your competitiveness on availability, which may have been important when you were just starting out because you were able to cater to an untapped market in a specific place, but is not a long-term way to build value.
Instead, make absolutely certain that you have a very clear and simple point of differentiation that underpins who you are as a brand and that will actually become more and more significant for your brand as you grow. In this situation, the ‘same’ you are basing your franchise on needs to different from others around you. That way, the more you expand, the more you stand out.
Build predictability into your brand story, unpredictably
Franchise brands work particularly well when people are looking for surety. They want to know that a food will taste a certain way or be of a certain quality, or that someone will do their tax return exactly as they have always done it, or that the lock they want for their house will be available and that it will work. In addition to basing your brand on a point of difference that sets it apart from all the others in the market, you should look to tell a story that people can rely on, but that has an element that is not run-of-the-mill.
KFC did that through the introduction of the Colonel as their mascot and his ‘secret recipe’ of 12 herbs and spices. Consumers looking for chicken know what to look for and know why to look for the brand. This even allows the brand to introduce regional variations across its menu under the same brand umbrella.
As your brand franchise expands, one of the key challenges you will face is knowing what is fundamental to your brand DNA and what is flexible
That regional adaptation ensures that each franchise is relevant to its specific market. Increasingly, global brands are finding they need to strike important balances between their universal systems and the nuances and specific requirements of each market in order to remain competitive against strong localised competition. Changing the menu so that consumers see something of themselves in what is being offered keeps the brand interesting in a world where retailers are struggling to retain long-term interest and loyalty. As your brand franchise expands, one of the key challenges you will face, particularly if your brand is lifestyle-focused, is knowing what is fundamental to your brand DNA and what is flexible. Stay true – but not too true.
Think and look bigger
So many franchises hold onto their small-start roots. Even when they are well established chains, they continue to look like ma-and-pa operations. There’s a certain charm in that. But franchising works most powerfully when it allows small business owners to unite under a strong brand. If that brand doesn’t look and feel like a leader, much of the value that franchisees are paying for is not being tapped as well as it could be.
By strategising and then developing a brand that the organisation can grow into, franchisees get maximum leverage from the brand, and the brand itself has a mandate to keep expanding. The balance that needs to be struck here – and it is another delicate one – is a brand that is familiar and trusted in its own right without feeling like it’s just another corporation. To me, the best franchise brands look and behave in a way that is ‘upstart-establishment’. They are close enough to the big players in how they present themselves to be respected, yet they retain a challenger mentality that gives them a level of edge and personality that makes them a clear alternative and their bigger competitors dare not copy.
Service with a twist
Franchises often confuse systems with experiences. Systems get an offering to market. They’re about logistics and processes. Experiences are how an offering is delivered to the customer. They’re about personality and relevance. Too often, even the best brand franchises merge these ideas in such a way that experiences become part of a process that feels formulaic and soul-less to buyers. “Would you like chips with that?” is the classic example, often delivered without meaning or even interest.
Service should be the exact opposite of this – the signature value-add that comes with what your franchisees sell and that reinforces for them why they will return. To get this right, I suggest you look at designing an experience set for your customers not based on what they get but on how you want them to feel as they walk out the door. Memory drives brand loyalty, and that’s where your franchisees and their staff need enough latitude to generate a quality reminder.
Here’s a simple question to help you arrive at that, “Given who we are as a brand, the values we have, the story we are telling and the reason why people come to us in the first place, what do we want them to be feeling as they leave?” Develop that into a set of characteristics that define your ideal experience. Then mystery shop competitors to establish whether that kind of experience really is as memorable as you think it is. If it’s not, adjust. Then make the delivery of those characteristics the key guidelines for how franchisees are to interact with customers.
Done right, franchising enables you to harness the best characteristics of brand, scale, consistency and small business. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Like any brand growth strategy, it requires careful strategy, an innate sensitivity for stringency and leniency, and the leadership skills to integrate frontline franchisees and organising franchisors into a competitive and responsive ecosystem that makes best use of all the moving parts at the same time as you continue to expand.
Note: A version of this post has been published elsewhere under the same title.