Now is a moment of enormous opportunity for restaurant chains. There’s renewed optimism as cash-flush consumers come out of their cocoons. Some chains are poised to grab the brass ring, while others will miss out on a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
The chains with the best chance to succeed will have the strongest, most resonant brand foundation. We all saw how important brand loyalty and unaided awareness became during COVID. Without the usual discovery tools at their disposal—driving or walking past the new store, those random water cooler recommendations—people turned to their old standbys.
The earlier you invest in your brand, the less you'll have to pay for it down the line.
Digging below the surface and asking yourself hard questions about who you are and how you should present yourself to the world is daunting. It can seem difficult and expensive, so you put it off for later. You’ve got pressing matters like franchise agreements, operations, staffing policies, and ketchup packet shortages to deal with.
Yet over the years, the savviest restaurant leaders have never regretted investing in their brand. (Though they often regret that they didn’t do it sooner.) Here’s why:
1. Great Branding Helps Easy Growing
As you’ve grown from a few units to dozens or more, you’ve likely seen your priorities and opportunities evolve. Founders typically start to feel a big shift happening around 50 stores. You’re moving into new cities and maybe new regions, so oversight becomes harder. As a passionate entrepreneur, you were able to keep close tabs on every aspect of the business, and for those first few dozen stores, you’ve kept things tight. But more stores means more tab-keeping. Plus, new markets mean more and different competition, and your original fan base isn’t there to help convert the uninitiated.
2. A Strong Positioning and a Clear, Aspirational Brand Essence Will Help Unite All of Your Stakeholders
If you can clearly articulate who you are and what you stand for, it’s much easier to attract like-minded franchisees and employees who will gladly join your ranks.
Take Jersey Mike’s Subs, for example. When they began their brand discovery, they already had a clear idea of who they were, but they didn’t know exactly how to talk about it. Through a consensus-building strategy process, they were able to uncover and then articulate their mantra, “A Sub Above.” It’s influenced every part of their business since. If a tomato isn’t fit for A Sub Above, it hits the compost bin. If a potential franchisee is content with mediocrity, they should look elsewhere.
3. Build Your Brand Before You Get Too Big
Maybe your brother-in-law or that freelance designer you met at the bar at the airport did your original branding work. That’s okay, because it got you this far. But now you’re ready for bigger things and it’s holding you back.
Looking ahead, the demands placed on the brand and identity will expand exponentially. If, for instance, you need to evolve your logo, tagline, or brand mascot, imagine having to update store fronts, marketing materials, and napkin dispensers when you’re ten times your current size. Whether you’re planning to grow from 50 to 200 stores, or 1000 to 5000, the math suggests you shouldn’t wait.
4. Brand Alignment Means Less Conflict
As you hit new milestones, perhaps 200 stores, you'll also feel your multi-unit franchisees start to wield more power. At times, those serial franchisees will have more experience than you do. They’ll be asserting their point of view and preferences, and pointing to other organizations that are “doing it better.”
You can minimize this risk by crafting a brand and an ethos that are unassailable. If you’re confident in what you stand for and you’re communicating that to your internal stakeholders and your customers, you leave very little room for dissent. The fact that “A Sub Above” sets a high bar means that Jersey Mike’s attracts ambitious franchisees who prioritize excellence. In turn, the food quality, service, and community involvement is exceptional across the board in over 2,000 stores. That excellence has followed the founder from his first shop on the Jersey Shore, to the latest stores in L.A., small town Wisconsin, and beyond.
5. Diamonds Are Made Under Pressure
Your business, your employees, and your customers have been in a pressure cooker this past year and a half. We’re all a little tired of being penned in, so we’re more open to new experiences and adventures. A clean slate awaits.
If you’ve been waiting for the right time to take the leap—become the powerful and polished brand you know you can—take this unique moment as a sign. If you’re ready for something new, trust that your customers (and lots more folks like them) will welcome something fresh, too.
For organizations large or small, there’s no time like the present to solidify your branding, and unlock a new level of energy and growth in your organization.
Jeremy Cesarec is Communications Director for Planet Propaganda, a creative and branding agency that’s built legacies for Jersey Mike’s Subs, Jimmy John’s, Pancheros Mexican Grill, and Duluth Trading Company.