In the Store | May 2012 | By Daniel P. Smith

Extreme Makeover, Fast Food Edition

Kickstarting growth through rebranding efforts requires more than a logo change and new wall colors.

In 2010, California Tortilla president Bob Phillips and other company leaders engaged in a spirited debate on whether the fast-casual chain should continue piping 1980s rock music into its eateries. Though tunes from bands such as Duran Duran and Journey had been characteristic of California Tortilla’s quirky, offbeat vibe since its 1995 founding, executives wondered if that dining soundtrack remained relevant.

They didn’t know then that the meeting would become a critical turning point in California Tortilla’s history.

“[The question of music] turned into a snowball discussion about if we were still hitting our target customer base on all fronts,” Phillips says. Two years later, the company is in the midst of a major branding overhaul that includes a new logo and new store aesthetics rolling out systemwide.

For many growth-seeking quick serves, adopting a new brand image is a bold way to increase consumer interest, excite prospective franchisees, and spark internal enthusiasm. But experts say companies looking to take this path must be aware that a brand overhaul requires more than crafting a new logo and applying a fresh coat of paint to the store.

Domino’s is one national quick serve that proved altering the core brand can re-energize a company. In 2008, the Michigan-based pizza chain embarked on a multiyear strategic initiative that produced a drastically altered menu, reformulated pizza recipe, and redefined advertising.

Domino’s vice president of communications Tim McIntyre says the effort was more than just a rebranding strategy. It was also an attitude adjustment. While elements such as the Domino’s logo, store look, and employee uniforms remained, there was a definitive shift to overall brand messaging.

Eager to grow traffic and sales, Domino’s embraced the fact that the company’s signature product had fallen behind competitors. Domino’s took to television, the Internet, and social media, acknowledging its missteps and promising to improve.

By and large, the effort worked. Domino’s domestic same-store sales jumped 9.9 percent in 2010 and another 3.5 percent in 2011. In 2010, Domino’s had 400,000 Facebook fans; today, the brand claims more than 5 million.

As fast food companies battle for the consumer’s dollar and attention, McIntyre says, branding is less about a logo and more about attitude and consumer perceptions.

“Our business wouldn’t have turned around with a logo change or redesigned stores,” McIntyre says. “We needed to address the real issues because that’s where we were falling short with customers.”

Four years after Domino’s began its renovation, McIntyre says he’s learned plenty about succeeding with a brand-altering effort. Above all, the effort must be comprehensive and focused.

“There’s truth that a fresh coat of paint and brighter lights help, but that’s one piece of a much greater puzzle,” McIntyre says. “The work needs to go much deeper than that and examine who you are, what others think of you, and how you meet and exceed those expectations.”

To do that, experts say, operators must consider a number of strategies that will maximize how much the rebranding resonates with consumers and sparks positive momentum.

Let research guide

At California Tortilla, leaders originally discussed focusing the rebranding on issues like brand promise and marketplace positioning. But their strategy later changed after the brand conducted research that explored customer awareness and conversion rates, future-visit intent, attribute importance, and market comparisons.

From the research, executives at the 35-unit, Maryland-based chain learned that food is most important to the consumer, and that the company overvalued and overemphasized service and vibe. As a result, consumers remembered the fun atmosphere more than the tasty food. This, Phillips says, was a problem.

Branding expert Mike Kelly of New York–based Brand Value Advisors says that doing research on store-level perceptions, whether tied to the store experience, service, menu, or value equation, is critical.

“A rebranding effort begins by picking the right things based on primary consumer truths about the brand,” Kelly says.

Today, Phillips says, California Tortilla is trying to base its decisions less on personal feelings and more on independent research. “I always thought a brand’s positioning was whatever the company wanted it to be. The recognition that it’s actually based on consumer perception was a real revelation,” he says. “We’re working now to make sure some things are said and not assumed.”

But Kelly says success will only come with solid execution, even with the most insightful research.

“Research is nothing more than a diagnostic,” he says. “If you’re going to have a successful rebranding, it’s all in the execution.”

Be honest about change

Like California Tortilla, Pizza Patrón refreshed its brand to jumpstart sagging numbers and reconnect with customers.

In early 2011, the 100-unit, Dallas-based pizza chain began revamping its product, pricing, and presentation. Rather than try quick-fix changes like they had used throughout much of the brand’s 26-year history, Pizza Patrón leaders looked for change that would be both substantial and effective. Aside from the long-held brand promise “Mas Pizza, Menos Dinero” and a focus on the concept’s core Latino customer, nothing was off limits.

Pizza Patrón director of brand development Andy Gamm says the process allowed the company to put each of its units under a microscope. Leaders found various trademarks and imagery that distracted from a unified message, as well as outdated assets. They also noted that there was insufficient communication with franchisees.

“We held a mirror up to ourselves and were a bit unhappy and surprised at some of what we saw, but it helped us build a list of what needed to be fulfilled and updated,” Gamm says.

After six weeks of testing new pricing, products, and presentation initiatives in eight units led to a 30 percent jump in same-store sales, Pizza Patrón cut its planned 90-day trial short and pushed the changes systemwide late last year. The rebranding initiative wrapped in February.

Gamm says it was important to analyze where Pizza Patrón had fallen short, what needed repair, and why it was important to adapt.

“All of this makes us healthier today than we were before these efforts started,” Gamm says.

Be thoughtful and strategic

Kelly urges brand leaders to step back, discern their situation and priorities, and gather empirical data. Then they should line up their investment, ready a testing game plan, and apply the changes.

“Replace what’s not important to the consumer or what’s not relevant to the brand,” he says.

Armed with research and new understandings, California Tortilla discovered that some of its décor, such as chili pepper lights and graphic concrete floors, overshadowed the restaurant’s culinary work.

“We were bombarding customers with so much stimuli that they couldn’t focus on the food,” says Stacey Kane, California Tortilla’s vice president of marketing.

While California Tortilla’s upcoming outlets will all have a new logo (highlighted by a sliced avocado) characterizing the restaurants’ fresh, high-quality fare, the brand overhaul goes farther. California Tortilla stores will now highlight the preparation and freshness of food with exhibition kitchens that allow guests to see steak grilling and tortilla chips frying.

“We’re doing the same things we’ve always done, but now it’s in the customers’ view. That’s a lot more powerful,” Phillips says. “By taking out the noise, we’re directing customers to what’s most important: the food.”

Say what you mean, do what you say

During its brand overhaul, Domino’s looked critically at its positioning and shortcomings. Understanding what was at the heart of its troubles, namely the menu, Domino’s figured out what needed to be changed and moved ahead.

“There was no plan B,” McIntyre says. “We were confident in testing [with] the product and marketing. We burned the old bridge and were only focused on moving forward.”

With a rebranding effort, Kelly says, there’s a lot of opportunity to second guess, which can ultimately confuse the customer.

“If you’re halting and unsure, you’re in trouble,” Kelly says. “Be confident you’ve made the right decisions based on credible research and a thoughtful plan.”

While Domino’s television spots and online ads generated significant public attention, McIntyre and his colleagues understood that the pizza chain’s claims needed to match customers’ experiences.

To accomplish that, Domino’s pushed the new brand perspective through employee training. From Thanksgiving to Christmas 2009, corporate representatives retrained every pizza maker in the system and urged operators to focus on one order at a time.

“If you’re going to make a claim that you’ve changed, you sure as heck better make sure you’ve changed,” McIntyre says. “We knew if we didn’t deliver on what we were promising, then all of our efforts would be lost.”

It’s a lesson California Tortilla is embracing as the company begins to roll out its refreshed look at seven new outlets and remodel existing stores.

“We wanted to preserve the fun vibe, but have that be the conduit for great food. If we can deliver on both fronts, we’re in a great position,” Kane says.

As for the 1980s rock? Kane says it will continue to define the California Tortilla experience.