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How three brands craft and control the message


Beginning in 2015, Ken McAllister, CEO of My Salon Suite, began examining all areas of the operation, looking for ways to improve. That included spreading the word about his franchise opportunity, especially via social media channels.

“We felt we were OK, but OK is not good enough. I say that all the time, how can we make this better?” he says.

So the franchisor added one staff member and then a second to help franchisees with Google Adwords, search engine optimization, social media, daily, weekly and monthly postings, email marketing, Facebook, LinkedIn and the like.

“It absolutely blew up,” he says about the company’s likes and links, which he adds is hardly surprising. “I sat in the airport the other day watching everybody, and everybody is looking at their phones. Everything is so fast today, that if you’re not ahead of the ball it’s going to run you over.”

My Salon Suite, which is a large retail space that the franchise owner leases to individual hair stylists and other salon professionals, was already oriented to the cloud. “We’re number one a Google company; our entire platform is on Google,” he says, including training materials, financial documents and everything else. So it wasn’t a huge stretch to beef up mobile marketing.

Ken McAllister

“When it comes to the digital era that we’re in, you’ve either got to get on board or you’re going to get run over.” — Ken McAllister, My Salon Suite

The problem is, not all franchisees are skilled in that area. Except for a handful, he says, “they’re just not techie people.” McAllister says they welcome the help from corporate IT gurus.

He hasn’t had any problems with franchisees going rogue with their social media messages—something that other brands worry about from time to time. “We’re not the NFL with Kaepernick,” he jokes, referring to San Francisco’s quarterback who made waves in August by refusing to stand for the U.S. national anthem.

He acknowledges, though, that the potential is there, when each franchisee signs multiple independent contractors to provide services, and each of those stylists could have any number of opinions, and each of those stylists’ customers could, too.

“We’re all entitled to our opinions, but also there is a platform, and if you’re providing haircuts is that a platform to share political positions? We have not run into that in three years,” McAllister says.

He’s much more concerned that everyone involved at My Salon Suite is doing more social media marketing, not less. “When it comes to the digital era that we’re in, you’ve either got to be on board or you’re going to get run over. We got on board early,” he says. “You have to hire the right people to manage it.”

Turning around the negative

Two years ago, when Julie Burleson restructured Young Chefs Academy from top to bottom, a responsive website that adapts to all platforms was a top priority.

“That’s imperative, really,” she says, and her brand’s responsive site has been fully functioning for a year.

Hosted on the franchisor’s main corporate site, the content is meant to serve two audiences: consumers who like to read about recipes and what their kids are making in class, and prospective franchisees who like to learn how existing owners got involved.

In a lot of cases those are one and the same. “We find some of our best franchisees to be former customers,” she says. Burleson relies on her public relations firm, AllPoints PR in Chicago, to help her shape her social media approach, and she recommends other CEOs enlist such expertise. “They’re the experts at what they do; we’re the experts at what we do, which is providing a robust, exceptional culinary experience for kids,” she says.

Julie Burleson

“You don’t ever get defensive. You don’t make excuses. You listen with an intent to understand, not to answer.” — Julie Burleson, Young Chefs Academy

Burleson likes to invite franchisees to be guest bloggers, because they share compelling stories. One franchisee told about her battle with cancer, a special struggle because she was working a corporate job with an unforgiving attitude. The woman’s 7-year-old daughter came home one day and said, “This is the business I want you to start. I want us to do this together,” Burleson said.

“So, wow,” she adds. “It’s those stories that really show what we’re all about.”

Then the conversation turns to the flip side of social media: negative reviews, which anyone can post at any time. And it is here that Burleson describes both her philosophy about unhappy customers, as well as a detailed customer service policy on how to rectify the situation.

In her view, a customer who will email or call about a bad experience is a gift. “It’s such an opportunity when they call you,” she says, “rather than going and telling all of their friends about what a bad experience they had.” She trains franchisees on what to do and not to do.

“You don’t ever get defensive. You don’t make excuses. You listen with an intent to understand, not to answer. And count to 10,” she adds, or 20 or 30 if necessary. “You want to take the conversations offline, too. And then we work through our customer service policy on how to rectify the situation, and turn an unhappy customer into a happy customer.”
Does that really happen at Young Chefs Academy? “Oh yes, 90 percent of the time that happens,” she says. “If you will allow them to tell you what can we do to make this right, and you honor that,” you have an opportunity to turn a bad situation around.

The subject of this interview, which I had emailed to Burleson in advance, was “marketing in the mobile age, and how to craft and control the message.” When I repeated the topic and asked if she had anything to add, we both agreed the wording was a bit contrived. Then she shared a higher-level lesson on communications.

“In today’s mobile age and its transparency, you can’t be crafty, and you can only be so manipulative,” she says. “You have to be passionate about the service or product you’re delivering, and your franchisees do, too, and it will show.”

A bold, expensive deal

On October 10, Vitality Bowls is launching a bold—and expensive—promotion to mark its fifth anniversary. “We’re doing five for five. Everybody at every store can come in and get a $5 vitality bowl, which is incredible because some of our bowls cost up to $14,” says founder and COO Tara Gilad.

Tara Gilad

“Hopefully it will get a lot of people in, and it will change their life.” — Tara Gilad, Vitality Bowls

Gilad got plenty of push-back from her team when she proposed the idea. “People said, no way, it should be five dollars off,” Gilad said, or they proposed only the cheapest bowl should be offered for the low price.

“And I said, you know what, this is a big deal to me, and it’s my way of giving back. I’m trying to spread healthy food across America. Hopefully it will get a lot of people in, and maybe it will change their life.”

Vitality Bowls now has 52 locations sold, a respectable mark for the superfoods café. She made the promotion optional for franchisees, and said every one has opted in. “We said, we get it, this is a big expense. I think that shows a lot about our franchisees as well,” Gilad said. “They’re going to lose money all day. They’re going to have a tough month.” But they believe in getting healthy food to more customers.

Gilad turned over all of her franchise’s social media and public relations work to All Points PR about a year and a half ago, an outsourcing step she recommends to other emerging brands. “It’s the best investment ever,” she said, especially the detailed reports on different analytics, evaluating which marketing campaigns perform the best.

Two recent campaigns, one called “Beyond the Bowl” and another called “Fuel your Day,” collected and published stories from customers about how eating healthy food changed their life. “It’s been really amazing seeing all the incredible stories. You realize you’re affecting people all over,” Gilad says.

Then she is asked to reflect on Vitality Bowls’ own story. When she started the brand five years ago, did she ever expect to get there, to this five-year, 52-unit milestone? “I’m not sure, because I didn’t know where ‘there’ was. But now that we’re here, if you had asked me five years ago would we be here I would have said no way,” Gilad says.

“We grow one day at a time,” she adds.

Living Large follows three emerging franchises for an entire year, reporting how they tackle the challenges that affect every growing brand. Send your own tips on marketing in a mobile age to Beth Ewen, bewen@franchisetimes.com.

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