*Sandy Lechner is President and CEO of Synergy Media Team.
What does "brand" mean? Unless you are responsible for marketing a huge national equity brand, or a smaller system with very dense local or regional market penetration, not much.
With marketing dollars at a premium, sales declining and resources diminishing, "branding" needs to take a distant back seat to return-on-investment-based programs that drive traffic, trial, and retention. Traffic, of course, is simply a constant flow of new prospective customers who match your model profile consumer. Trial is getting your prospective consumers to try your food and live your experience. Retention is the most important component of the three -- it's the process of converting prospective customers into loyal fans.
Let's start by talking about my understanding and definition of the term "brand" and all its variants. I think we can all agree on Merriam Webster's definition: "having a well-known and usually highly regarded or marketable name." In my view, it follows that Pizza Hut, Subway, Denny's, McDonald's and the like are brands -- names everyone recognizes, with full market penetration, consistency in every location, total creative continuity and virtually full-system compliance. There are also some really strong regional brands that have been able to saturate specific local and regional markets, such as Papa Murphy's, In-N-Out Burger, Pollo Tropical, etc.
The reality is, most multiunit and franchised restaurant systems don't really have a "brand." Instead, they have a group of scattered restaurants in various markets, with very little local or regional market penetration. While we may want to fool ourselves in thinking we have a "brand," what we really have is a group of independently owned restaurants with no real tie to one another, other than the concept and maybe the food. I am not diminishing the importance of a strong concept or the hard work and sacrifice it takes to build a strong concept, just that it does not equal a strong brand.
One of the concepts we represent has nearly 200 units, all over the country. Only two are within a 30-minute drive of our office. If I were to ask 100 friends or associates in our immediate area if they had ever heard of this "brand," most would say no. This is not because it is a bad concept. Quite the opposite: It's a great concept, with great food, service and growth potential.
The point is that this specific system is not a "brand" in our market but rather two restaurants with a trade area of three-to-five miles around each unit, with a marketing focus on winning loyal, repetitive customers in their specific areas. For the executives of these two units to spend a dime of local, regional or national marketing funds on "branding" via TV, radio, billboards, or any other non-direct response media is ridiculous.
Instead, any available marketing funds for small-to-medium-sized concepts with a scattered footprint should be spent on local store marketing (LSM) campaigns that are specifically designed to drive traffic, trial and retention. They need to be executable, trackable and repeatable. Larger regional and national equity brands usually have separate LSM and brand-building budgets.
I recommend focusing on building traffic, trial and retention through a series of LSM initiatives, including:
- Saturation mail (to ensure everyone in your market area knows you are there and who you are)
- VDP direct mail (targeted and personalized to your target customers with specific messages, such as "happy birthday," welcome to the neighborhood," etc.)
- School promotions and fundraising programs
- Opt-in e-mail marketing and social media programs
- Loyalty programs
- Strong in-store materials (4-walls marketing programs, menus, magnets, bounce backs, etc.)
- Specific day and day-part promotions
- Employee paycheck programs
- Catering initiatives and programs
- Door hangers
These initiatives, combined with amazing customer service, cleanliness, great food and some specific differentiation, are all ingredients for unit success.
You must build strong, loyal, local customer bases and win the three-to-five-mile radius battle with your competitors. Every unit must win this battle and develop market penetration in order for a concept to grow into a real brand.
Sandy Lechner is President and CEO of Synergy Media Team, which provides fully integrated Print, Mail, Marketing, and Fulfillment Management solutions, and specializes in QSR and Fast Casual Multi-unit and Franchise Systems. You can reach him at Sandy@TheSynergyMediaTeam.com or 954-414-0304.