Executive Insights | June 2012 | By Julie Knudson

Staying True to Your Roots

Growing your brand nationally shouldn’t mean losing sight of where you started.

Roland Dickey Jr. always tries to keep Dickey's grounded in its Texas roots.
Roland Dickey Jr. always tries to keep Dickey's grounded in its Texas roots.
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“Growth has killed many brands.”

Those words, from Corner Bakery Café’s CEO Mike Hislop, sum up a problem that several quick-serve CEOs face: Expanding a business is a natural desire for most executives, but growing it beyond one or two stores without compromising its authentic, personable branding often proves to be difficult.

But some CEOs, including Hislop, have figured out how to balance growth with a consistent, brand-wide personality.

At Dallas-based Corner Bakery, a laser focus on the company’s story is pivotal to successfully moving into new markets, Hislop says. It’s helped the brand flourish into an organization with restaurants in more than a dozen states. The impressive record of growth, Hislop says, hasn’t diluted his company’s image. “We’ve been doing this for a long time and we know what makes us unique,” he says. “We don’t want to change that.”

Understanding the brand’s core position and sticking to it is critical, confirms Roland Dickey Jr., president of Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants in Dallas. “We’re Texas barbecue, and we’re nothing but that,” he says. “We’ve got eight meats, 10 vegetables, and that’s it.”

Dickey believes his company has been guided by focusing on what it’s best at. “Don’t generalize—specialize,” he says.

Outside factors are constantly evolving, but how a restaurant embraces and rejects change will affect how successfully it can maintain its image, the experts say. For Hislop, weaving regional preferences and franchisees’ ideas into the Corner Bakery story has been a challenge. “The partners that we bring in have ideas. They’ve been running their own businesses for a period of time,” he says, adding that his team “has a formula that works, but in our partnership with our franchisees, we’re very open to trying different things.”

Determining how widely to vary things like menu items and store layout—some areas prefer sweet tea to regular tea, patios work well in warm climates but not cold—has required Corner Bakery to evolve. Hislop says that balance is the key. “Don’t be afraid to keep the core together, but be flexible enough to listen to the people that have been in those markets,” he says.

A strong dedication to the brand’s roots has allowed Dickey’s to build a following, even in an area that initially looked like a challenge. Before the company opened a store in California, Dickey says, “they didn’t even know what beef brisket was out there.” To ensure the locals were introduced to the best examples of Texas barbecue, Dickey says his team was careful to source fresh ingredients and prepare them according to the company’s long-standing traditional methods.

As brands grow outside their home area, there is often an urge to incorporate menu items or regional customs specific to the new markets they’re entering, says Michelle Adelson, chief brand strategist with consultant The Phelps Group. She says that though cultural norms may shift around the country, “there will still be consistencies your customers are looking for.” Things like store footprint, dining rooms, and even menu items might vary by market, Adelson says, but brands should identify core components that will be present in each location across the organization.

In addition, instead of adapting too far outside a brand’s central image to appease regional preferences, restaurants are often able to better connect to the community through tie-ins with local schools or sports teams. “As brands grow, you still want to stay true to what has made you known and what you stand for,” Adelson says.

Keeping the corporate identity front and center is something Dickey strongly recommends. “Every day we think about our brand strategy,” he says. The team approaches change by “sticking to our roots and finding that balance,” and Dickey says it’s identified the differentiators—things like its highly focused menu, fresh ingredients, and classic Texas-style preparations—that make it special. The company’s message was instilled within the brand when Dickey’s grandfather opened the first location in 1941, and today, Dickey says, “I make sure we stay the course as far as identity goes.”

Maintaining a commitment at the store level and demonstrating that commitment regularly has helped Hislop continue to expand while keeping the right brand vibe. Corner Bakery is building both corporate and franchise stores, and Hislop says franchisees love that the company is “building right alongside them.” Instead of being detached and turning the company into an arms-length franchise model, he says, growing the organization internally keeps him in touch with day-to-day issues and concerns, and also with what he calls “the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to growth.” His team is able to spot potential problems and trends early, ensuring the company’s central message remains strong.

Customer engagement should be a primary initiative for brands that are keen on expanding without losing touch with their roots, Adelson says. She says CEOs should be routinely asking for feedback on customer experiences and should stay involved with customers through a variety of channels as part of company-wide efforts to “manage one consistent perception in the marketplace.”

Communications with customers should focus on understanding what the brand means to consumers, so that CEOs can strengthen that message as the organization grows. “Your brand isn’t who you say you are,” she says. “It’s what your market says you are.”