Imagine you’re working the line. Music is playing as you prepare food—the same track that blares in the background every shift.

Then, something changes.

Your favorite album turns on and you realize management paid attention. Your mood shifts, and productivity picks up. Customers take notice of team morale and feel comfortable chatting up staff.

This might sound like a pedestrian scenario, but the thought behind employees and customers feeling comfortable on a personal level, whether at work or visiting their favorite pizza joint, is just what Blaze Pizza is trying to achieve with its new “Free to Be You” brand promise, which is in the process of being rolled out systemwide.

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The “Free to Be You” initiative isn’t a campaign; rather it’s a promise, the company says, from Blaze to consider how much freedom employees and customers have to be themselves.

“It’s the underpinning of an entirely new customer and team member centric brand platform,” says Vincent Szwajkowski, CMO of Blaze. “It’s our internal North Star that’s going to guide everything we do. It’s impacting how we think about marketing campaigns, how we think about digital innovation, operations, training … all of those aspects related to how we’re moving the brand forward.”

Blaze’s “Free to Be You” movement is a year in the making. The company began heavily researching ways to move the brand forward during the summer of 2021.

By using focus groups, surveys, and interviews with franchisees, Blaze identified functional reasons guests continually choose to dine there. Things like customization, product quality, and fresh ingredients stood out. Szwajkowski says an overarching theme that kept popping up, though, was people wanted to be valued at an individual level.

“We did more research in a three-month period than the brand had done in its entire existence,” he says. “This idea of individuality kept coming up. I feel like the idea of freedom, particularly on choice and customization, has always been a part of Blaze. We wanted to double down on that and find ways to then have that go into that more emotive space, particularly with our guests, and I would actually argue even more importantly the team members that are working in our restaurants every single day. And so that then became the strategic impetus for the new brand promise of free to be you.”

Szwajkowski has been at Blaze for about 18 months. When he first arrived, he noticed some of the brand’s messaging felt unclear. That, coupled with marketing and training messaging not lining up, led Szwajkowski to reimagine how the brand, which had a solid foundation of nine years to rely on, could reflect its core values while still pushing forward. For Szwajkowski, the most important aspect was bringing fresh energy and maintaining a level of consistency through every department.

Szwajkowski and his colleagues concluded prioritizing customers and staff was necessary, and it didn’t have to be achieved through separate, parallel initiatives. He says they realized they could create moments of joy for employees that translate into moments of joy for guests.

To achieve this, a new focus was placed on hyper-local connection. “We should be out there working with and supporting the communities in which we operate,” Szwajkowski says. “That extends to the team members from those communities as well. If I have kids on my team that are in the marching band at their school, I want to be supporting them in their endeavors. It’s a win-win situation. The community is wining and team members feel empowered and taken care of.”

Making sure employees feel seen and taken care of is no small task. According to a recent report from Deloitte, 61 percent of all employees hide or cover up some aspect of their identities. Szwajkowski says it’s also equally important for customers to feel like they can be themselves.

To help implement changes, Blaze plans to rethink how it can improve operational aspects like marketing and training. Yet that doesn’t mean scrapping its playbook. Instead, the brand will look at how it can empower workers to bring their own personality when it comes time to interact with guests, which in turn helps the guests feel individually seen and taken care of. 

One of the ways the brand is looking to do so is through its new music program. Szwajkowski says after some internal research, the brand realized staff at certain units were plugging in their own digital devices to stream music in favor of what Blaze opted to play systemwide.

So we went through a process of changing our music,” he says.

Blaze put up posters in the back of house at a few restaurants and requested employees to share the kind of music they wanted to listen to while at work.

“We incorporated probably 80-plus percent of the songs and suggestions,” he says. “We’re taking a much more collaborative approach, and we’re getting great feedback.”

Szwajkowski says this is just a micro example of the kind of changes its Free to Be You promise will surface. But it’s significant in a number of ways. It allows employees to bring a little more of their own personality into their workspace, which makes them more comfortable. It also displays Blaze’s willingness to break from traditional operational structures in favor of more communal, collaborative strategies.

“We’re creating these localized connections and it’s forging human engagement,” he says, adding these sorts of strategies make the brand feel less like a corporate entity and more like something organic.

“What works in Dallas, Texas, is not going to be the same that works in restaurants in Chicago, or Florida, or southern California,” Szwajkowski adds. “So it’s [the Free to Be You promise] really allowing the brand to stay true to its core, which is ‘free to be you’… which is something we’re going to fully embrace, because everyone is aligned with the core values and core promise.”

Szwajkowski thinks Blaze’s new brand promise will help when it comes to present staffing challenges. He says as the program continues to roll out (the aim is systemwide by Q4 close), the percentage of employees who stay on with the company will improve, though he isn’t naïve about the overall state.

“I think you’ll start seeing a shift with existing team members first,” he says. “I don’t think this is a silver bullet that’s going to solve all of our problems with staffing and retention in the next 30 days. But I do think that it will provide us with an opportunity to differentiate ourselves versus other brands, particularly brands that are much larger and have bigger budgets than we do.”

An additional aspect of the Free to Be You promise is the brand’s partnership with Strayer University. Employees at Blaze who enroll in a degree program through Strayer University by July of 2022 will be eligible to receive up to 50 percent off of tuition during the duration of the program as long as the employee stays continuously enrolled. Strayer will be picking up the full cost of the 50 percent reduction once they verify the student is currently employed by Blaze.

During Q4, Blaze will celebrate its 10-year anniversary. During that time, it will incorporate a new visual identity. He says this new brand promise is a way to show Blaze isn’t idle after a decade and is growing its culture alongside its footprint.

“There’s something really powerful in this promise,” he says. “It’s a sort of rallying cry that we’ve been here for 10 years and we’re setting the stage for the next 10 years of growth. I feel really optimistic about how this is going to have a really positive impact on the brand and growth trajectory moving forward.

Customer Experience, Employee Management, Fast Casual, Restaurant Operations, Story, Blaze Pizza