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Establish brand standards, plus ‘why’ behind them, in Living Large


Living Large

What attracts many people to franchising is the opportunity to work with a proven brand and business model. Even for an emerging franchise that is still in the proving itself stage, the brand and its corresponding intellectual property are essential to building a strong foundation.

At the most basic level, however, young brands often fail to adopt trademarks or service marks that are available or eligible for protection and enforcement. Or they fail to enforce brand standards—that’s everything from signage and construction to training, marketing and management—from the outset of the relationship with franchisees. These mistakes can surface quickly once the brand gains traction, leading to legal and business challenges when the franchise tries to correct its course.

Of course young brands are eager to grow and it’s exciting to focus on sales and expansion, but not at the expense of areas that translate into system sustainability and uniformity. As this year’s Living Large bosses know, it’s much harder to backtrack and change the way franchisees are running the business than it is to ensure they’re following the same system from the start. Be transparent and give credibility to why brand standards are crucial, not just at the corporate level, but also to the success of individual franchisees.

What’s in a brand?

What happens in franchising, especially for people new to the industry or considering their first concept is, “the word ‘brand’ becomes really hard for people to understand what we’re talking about,” says Rob Flanagan. That’s why at Wag N’ Wash, Flanagan and his team talk about the brand not purely in terms of name and logo.

“It’s the emotional response that anybody outside of Wag N’ Wash has when they think of Wag N’ Wash,” Flanagan, the company’s president, says he explains to franchisee candidates. “That emotional connection is created with the quality of your customer service, the look and feel of your store, and so that extends to every channel.” If a customer has an excellent experience, they’ll connect that with the Wag N’ Wash brand overall. Conversely, if one store is giving poor service, “it affects the entire system,” he tells franchisees.

“We spend a lot of time really talking about, as you grow your store as a local franchisee and as the national brand grows, it’s one customer at a time,” says Flanagan. The brand standards manual is specific to all the things that create the aforementioned emotional connection, and when it comes to enforcement Flanagan focuses on tying it back to “the why. So it’s not just coming across as big brother policeman, but why we do it. All these little things create a perception of the brand.”

Realistically, says Flanagan, a young brand might not have the resources to enforce everything in its franchise agreement, which is why he advises having an early understanding of what is at the core of the system and where there are opportunities to work with franchisees who may have ideas.

“Get really clear in the beginning that these are the non-negotiables, but here’s what you can do on your own,” he says, keeping in mind that, from a legal perspective to maintain and defend trademarked components, the name, logo and taglines are off-limits for change. “For us it’s ‘Keep ‘em wagging,’” as a tagline, “not ‘Keep them wagging.’”

That enforcement also comes into play as the system grows and the impact of consistency becomes more noticeable. “You’ve gotta enforce those brand standards or you’ll get to 25 stores all doing different things, and to go to a franchisee and try to roll it back, it’s a nightmare,” says Flanagan.   

Corporate stores, too, need to follow the same standards. “We’ve gone through some tagline changes,” says Flanagan. “So we’re not going to franchisees to enforce updates until our stores are 100 percent in compliance.”

Set the tone

Dan Henry recalls something an attorney once told him: “When you buy a franchise, you’re actually paying for the marks.”

“That’s the biggest asset you’re buying,” says Henry, VP of sales and operations at six-unit studio fitness concept Tough Mudder Bootcamp, of the trademarked items that make up a franchise brand. Protection of that intellectual property is tantamount to the success of the concept, as is building—and following—a framework based on clear brand standards.

“You’ve gotta set the tone early,” says Henry. “If you’re an emerging brand or have a thousand units, you have to act like a business. You can’t go changing standards along the way.” This especially applies to the treatment of the first franchisees to enter the system, some of whom may push their own agenda or seek deviations from the system.

“We caught ourselves almost going down the path of letting franchisees dictate certain things,” says Henry, pointing to usage of specified technology as an example. “We made some bends early on. And then you have no way of measuring the effectiveness of the system” if not everyone is complying. “But we’re early enough, we caught it.”

TMB uses a studio readiness checklist to approve everything that goes into a newly opened location, from signage to workout equipment, but also solicits feedback from franchisees. “We want them to be a part of our thought process and how we grow the brand, but in an appropriate way for our system,” says Henry of what amounts to a balancing act of incorporating useful input from ‘zees while being mindful of the confusion and headaches later on that can result.

Future growth is another area where Henry advocates thinking ahead. While TMB isn’t actively pursuing development outside the United States, the brand has its marks registered in multiple countries, which also serves to protect it from infringement.  

Plan for growth

Initial trademark documents for its new name were already filed when HRI Holdings acquired what was Delta Disaster Services in 2018, but the entire process took several more months before the brand was able to formally roll out its new name, Delta Restoration Services. “We got the final, final trademark at the end of January 2019,” says Dan Tarantin, HRI’s CEO, cautioning young brands to prepare for that lag as they plan to roll out a franchise program.

“One of the basic parts of franchising is going to be the name, so you want to make sure you have it locked up,” he says. Delta already had several franchisees operating under the original name, and while it’s not always a simple process to convert locations, it’s worth the effort.

“It’s something that we could grow into,” he notes of the switch from “Disaster” to “Restoration,” and it helps prevent customers from assuming the company’s services are only applicable after a catastrophic event. Brands need to think about potential future services or products they might offer when choosing a name, stresses Tarantin, and be mindful of not waiting too long if they’re going to make a change.

“It gets harder and harder as time goes on,” he says. “We decided to do it quietly before we grew the brand too much. With every franchisee, that’s just one more we have to change over.”

Delta’s brand guidelines cover everything from multiple versions of the logo to the design of its franchisees’ service vans. Marketing collateral is approved by corporate, as are template designs for local franchisee web pages, which are then personalized.

A compliance group deals not only with franchisee compliance but also name infringement, which Tarantin says Delta’s franchisees are quick to alert the company to.

“We approach compliance as it pertains to potential damage to the brand,” he notes, with perhaps one of the most common incidents being if a franchisee is soliciting business outside their territory. “We’re stringent early on,” he says, adding, however, that if there isn’t yet a franchisee in that outside territory, “we’re a little more flexible and aware that we want to grow a national brand.”  

Editor Laura Michaels follows three emerging brands through a year’s worth of challenges in Living Large.

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