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Lessons from ‘The Founder’: What all of us can learn from Ray Kroc


Mark Siebert

Illustration by Jonathan Hankin

If you have a vested interest in franchising, you’ve likely already seen John Lee Hancock’s “The Founder.” What began as a small-town operation in 1948 has since grown to more than 30,000 restaurants worldwide, making McDonald’s the poster child for effective franchise development.

Michael Keaton is Ray Kroc in this 2016 biopic chronicling the birth and boom of the fast-food brand. Viewers witness the moment when Kroc meets the McDonald brothers, discovers the genius behind their operation, and lays the groundwork for what would eventually become an international sensation.

Regardless of what you think of Kroc’s character in the movie, “The Founder” is an invitation to consider how strategic marketing can breed growth.

The right ingredients

Shared ethics, values and priorities are what separate a great franchise network from a collection of investors. Franchisors looking to foster system-wide synergy can start by tailoring their marketing message around a customized buyer profile.

Kroc was fortunate enough to learn this lesson early on in the franchise development process, shifting his focus from passive investors to owner-operators. The dynamic of the entire McDonald’s franchise community shifted in accordance.

By marketing the concept to middle-class husband-and-wife teams, Kroc created a network of family-run operations defined by a distinct work ethic and a willingness to maintain brand standards.

When it comes to assembling your own pool of franchisees, take the time to build-your-own comprehensive buyer profile. Whether you choose the owner-operator route or not, your system’s success will depend on your ability to identify qualities, traits, and experiences that make ideal franchisees successful. Ask yourself: What type of franchisee will best represent my brand?

Are they first-time business owners? What strengths must they have? What experience? Large area developers may seem like the low-hanging fruit (and they may well be right for you), but they are not right for every concept. Consider your options, be intentional, and shift your marketing strategies to target that persona.

Big Mac attack

If innovation is a feast, there’s no need to eat alone. Again, regardless of how he was portrayed in the movie, part of Kroc’s genius was recognizing genius in others.

While it was not highlighted in the movie, Kroc listened to his operators in areas such as product development and marketing. Brand staples such as the Big Mac, the Egg McMuffin, Ronald McDonald and even the Filet-O-Fish sandwich were all products of franchisees’ creativity.

Introduced in 1965, the Filet-O-Fish was inspired by a large Catholic population in the Cincinnati market. Franchisee Louis Groen hoped to regain customers he lost under the Pope’s mandate to abstain from meat on Fridays.

A skeptical Kroc devised his own solution, “the Hulaburger” – a slice of grilled pineapple between two slices of cheese on a toasted bun. Suffice it to say, a franchisor can sometimes learn from its franchisees.

While franchisees should not have the latitude to experiment with marketing or product innovation, the best franchisors allow them to exchange ideas and weigh in with creative recommendations for attacking the market. And, the best marketers understand what messaging and media will evoke a response from prospects who aspire to help a system evolve.

Look for the Golden Arches

The ultimate franchise marketing goal is to craft and coin a distinct flavor for your brand. No one mistakes a Big Mac for any other burger on the market. In the same regard, potential franchisees must clearly understand how your concept is different from your competition.

Kroc treasured his role as gatekeeper of the McDonald’s brand, fine-tuning its image and enforcing consistency right down to the store level. Kroc was known to clean every crack and crevice at his own Des Plaines store, and it was not uncommon for him to pick up waste paper on a franchisee’s lot during a visit.

In this way, he reinforced accountability across all levels of the operation. He once said, “I didn’t invent the hamburger. I just took it more seriously than anyone else.”

So, too, should we look at franchise marketing. The best franchisors will create a brand image that is consistently communicated across multiple channels and media.

Too often, though, that brand image is disturbed when different agencies coordinate different aspects of communication.

If your PR firm is saying one thing, your social media team something else, and your ad agency yet something else, the resulting message gets muddled. By establishing a central “keeper of the message,” you can best develop a uniform presence across all marketing campaigns and improve your chances of attracting franchisees who are aligned with your mission.  

In the movie, Kroc summed up his success with a single word: “persistence.”  And indeed, persistence will be a key element of any brand’s success. However, one could easily overlook the other key components that factored into that success, including a targeted lead generation strategy, regular input from franchisees and effective brand management. Each of these elements contributed to the strategy that helped McDonald’s take the throne as a market leader.

Kroc once said, “I like to get people fired up, fill them with zeal for McDonald’s, and watch the results in their work.” Whether you consider him a hero or a villain after watching the movie, any franchisor looking to improve its marketing efforts may well consider following his lead. The closer you can get to crafting a custom marketing strategy that suits your system’s needs, the sooner you can fire up the right franchisees to take your brand to the top.

Mark Siebert is CEO of consulting firm iFranchise Group. Reach him at 708.957.2300 or info@ifranchisegroup.com. His new book is “Franchise Your Business: The Guide to Employing the Greatest Growth Strategy Ever.”

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