Since May 2010, TCBY has introduced a self-serve prototype, revamped its store design, and signed a deal to open 200 stores in Texas over the next 10 years.
It was no coincidence that TCBY hired a new CEO that same month.
“Growing the brand was a high priority [when I started],” says Tim Casey, who heads both the TCBY and Mrs. Fields concepts under the Mrs. Fields Famous Brands umbrella. “We were in the middle phase of rebranding, reimaging, and reconcepting TCBY [when I came on], so that, along with where the industry was in terms of demand for frozen yogurt, really did speak to the need for more growth strategy than the organization had up until then.”
A different set of circumstances led Carl Howard, who was named CEO of Fazoli’s in June 2008, to focus on accelerating the brand he found himself in charge of.
“Before my joining the company, the brand had been through a rocky period,” he says. “I was hired to be a change agent.”
For Howard, growing the concept wasn’t just a matter of adding to the number of stores. “My first priorities were to quickly determine why our guests were migrating away from the brand and to build a team that could assist me in reversing the trend,” Howard says. “We learned that guests had stopped visiting Fazoli’s due to poor quality and abnormal price increases.”
A year later, Fazoli’s had 35 new menu items and a value-based pricing strategy, much of it attributed to Howard’s hard work toward accelerating brand growth.
But stepping on the brand accelerator isn’t always a smart move, experts say.
Dave Knox, chief marketing officer and brand management expert at consulting agency Rockfish, points to Starbucks as a prime example of a concept that suffered the harsh consequences of pushing brand acceleration too far.
“By expanding too fast, they lost that special something that was the brand,” he says. “They had to fight to get that back and lost billions of dollars off their market cap as a result.”
Figuring Out the ‘Speed Limit’
Casey has a litmus test he uses to determine whether brand growth is even a smart move in the first place.
“When growth for the sake of growth becomes the strategy, bad decision making will result,” he says. To avoid those poor decisions, Casey recommends ensuring the concept has the infrastructure necessary for planned growth.
“You could say you want to open 100 stores next year, but if you do that without the right infrastructure in place, you could end up causing some serious damage to your brand,” Casey says.
Knox also suggests assessing the concept’s position in the marketplace—what keeps customers coming back as opposed to going to competitors—before any brand acceleration strategies are initiated.
“When somebody wants to talk to another person about your brand, it’s about more than just how the food tastes,” he says. “What’s the story they’re going to tell about you? That’s what branding is about.”
For Casey, that means asking himself two questions: Are we doing what the customer wants, and do we have a business model that’s appealing to our franchisees?
“In my mind—and I know this is a big cliché—but the brand isn’t what the organization says it is. It’s what the consumer says it is,” he says. “We knew for TCBY that environment was an important factor in being able to accelerate, and we knew the self-serve platform was going to be a component. We appealed to our franchisees by giving a business model that they would want to expand with.”
All of those considerations played heavily into Casey’s decision to move forward with a new self-serve prototype for TCBY.
Knox recommends using customer opinion as a barometer for when the brand might be accelerating too quickly or moving too far from its core concept. He cites Potbelly, a sandwich fast casual, as an example.
“I worked next to their first store in Chicago when I was an intern,” he says. “As they’ve expanded, they’ve very much kept the equity going. But about nine months ago, they changed the recipe of their Dream Bar and a few other items. They seemed to get quite a bit of backlash, and within a month or so, they changed back to the old recipe.”
By listening to feedback from its customers, Potbelly realized that any brand growth would have to take into account the store’s signature recipes and ingredients.
Offer Autonomy to Key Players
When Howard started looking at how he could accelerate Fazoli’s growth, he also looked to the consumers and their preferences. But then he focused on his c-suite.
“As CEO, you set the priorities and help establish the game plan. But one person cannot make it happen on their own,” he says. “I’ve learned that it takes a great team to win, and you need to give your key players enough autonomy to do the job.”
And, as Howard can attest, the results speak for themselves. “Once we fixed our menu and established the right team, the turnaround began,” he says.
Knox says that growing a brand starts with building the right team.
“I do think it’s important to really empower your people,” he says. “If you brought in a great marketing or leadership team, let them do what they do well and really live the brand and help it grow.”
But Knox says CEOs who serve as the face of the company might need to become more involved in some of the legwork of brand acceleration. He points to Apple as an example of an organization whose CEO, Steve Jobs, is virtually synonymous with the company, thus making Jobs a critical component of any brand growth.
At TCBY, Casey doesn’t strive to be the face of the company. Rather, he sets the overall strategy, leaving his senior management free to establish specific organizational strategies in their areas of expertise.
Once you define the tone for the entire brand, they can work with their teams to figure out the best way to accomplish the growth goals that you’ve set out,” he says.