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Experts on How Franchises Should Market to Consumers During a Pandemic


“Pretty much all mediums are being consumed more during this crisis, because we’re all home,” said Mary Ann O’Brien, CEO and founder of advertising strategy firm OBI Creative.

“It’s not all rainbows and lollipops. Sometimes consumers get paralyzed during this time,” said Mary Ann O’Brien, CEO and founder of advertising strategy firm OBI Creative.

As various industries are being allowed to open back up in some states with social distancing and other safety measures, brands are trying to figure out how to advertise smartly yet sensitively to anxious customers.

O’Brien recommends that brands test out strategies they’ve been talking about doing but have never gotten around to implementing. For example, a lot of companies have pivoted to online seminars, webinars such as Franchise Times’ Restaurant Recovery series, and even full-blown virtual conferences such as the International Franchise Expo.

“Dust those things off. How has this forced shutdown of our economy allowed people to engage differently, and how could that be positive for your business?” O’Brien said. “Our clients that spent consistently and stayed in the market grew exponentially after the last financial crisis. My clients who didn’t, who pulled back or who were paralyzed—their growth rates didn’t bounce back as quickly.”

What some may see as short-term solutions such as working from home or hosting team Zoom meetings may actually become the new norm—and in O’Brien’s eyes, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“I think it’s humanized people so much. You’re in the middle of a Zoom meeting and my dog is barking or my kid is crying. We have a little more empathy for people, and I hope that continues,” O’Brien said. “We don’t do any meetings without video—even if we look like crap—just to stay connected. We’re seeing we can connect through digital in a very meaningful way, which some brands were afraid of initially.”  

For companies that were historically scared to invest in new kinds of technology or social media channels, the pandemic has forced them to adopt new behaviors. And it’s paying off, as more people than ever are engaging online as they’re sheltering in place.

“Pretty much all mediums are being consumed more during this crisis, because we’re all home,” O’Brien said. “It’s kind of exciting for the clients who can afford to stay in the market, because they’re getting a lot more shared voice, eyeballs and impressions for the price they had already committed to.”

For franchises with needed services right now such as cleaning companies, O’Brien sees this as a time to really elevate themselves.

“Even the way we think about hospital staff—we’re seeing a lot more reverence than ever before, so how can what your franchise offers play off of that toward that population?” O’Brien said. “Really think about what you have through the lens of the customer today, not the customer yesterday. Then, reverse-engineer your solution to meet those needs.”

The importance of marketing both creatively and sensitively during this pandemic is of the utmost importance, because at heightened times, emotional senses are also heightened, O’Brien said.

“When you have an experience, positive or negative in high emotion, you don’t forget it. The brand recall is really high right now,” she said. “If you did really good things, that’s going to pay off positively, but if you’re being a bad steward, flighty or making poor decisions and thinking about yourself first and not your employees, it’s going to cost you down the road in terms of brand consideration.”

Overcommunicate, but don’t be too definitive

Overcommunicating internally to your team is also critical to keep messaging consistent and make sure everyone is on the same page in terms of how to communicate to customers.

“What’s the next message? I think it’s reentry and how we are reentering,” O’Brien said. “You don’t want to be too definitive because there are so many unknowns, and we might have another resurgence of this…using words like ‘may’ and ‘this is how we plan to do it, but things may change with other factors’—I think everybody understands that.”

O’Brien is also predicting a long-term change in marketing generally.

“From a messaging standpoint, what used to be B2B or even business to consumer is really H2H, human to human now,” O’Brien said. “How I message to businesses and consumers are the same now, for me as a marketer. Think about what turns them on and off and makes them tick. I can’t just talk about me and expect they’ll be engaged—it’s really about them.”

Other advice O’Brien has for franchises is to consider alliances, such as partnering with your wine distribution company to sell in a different format or package. Curbside pickup will also stick around for the long-haul, O’Brien expects, because “one human truism is that people want ease and convenience.”

“A lot of people might not like all the change going on,” O’Brien said. “But from a marketing perspective, you can be sure that if you resist the change, you won’t grow or prosper.”

Leveraging loyalty programs and gift cards

This is a time when brands are truly finding out who their loyal customers are, said Tom Epstein, the CEO and founder of Franchise Payment Network and Poln8, a customer loyalty technology company. 

“These customers have gone out of their way to support you, and I think brands need to go out of their way to reward them for doing that,” Epstein said. “More and more brands are learning to not take those customers for granted.”

In the past, loyalty programs have been mostly passive—for every 10th hamburger you buy, you get a free one, for example. But more brands are looking into a different structure of loyalty system that has a goal of changing consumer behavior through rewards.

“In the past, brands didn’t really view loyalty programs as a way to increase revenue or frequency of visits,” Epstein said. “But by changing the structure to really reward them in order to change consumer behavior is where brands are looking. They were forced to do that during COVID-19…now it’s going out of their way to continue doing business with those customers.”

Epstein predicts there will be more changes around payment processing becoming contactless across the board, as well as how brands are upping their usage of social media.

“In the past there was this thought that if you post too often, social media becomes annoying. But right now, things are a little bit different—you know your audience is at home surfing the internet a lot,” Epstein said. “If you only post once a day, they might not see you. So we’re having our brands post two or three times a day, at strategic times of the day when they think their audience will see it.”

Poln8 works with 190 franchise brands at thousands of locations throughout the U.S., providing payment processing, gift and loyalty programs. Another strategy Epstein is seeing is companies selling gift cards for future services in order to generate some immediate cash flow to their business.

“Even service brands who traditionally have not had a gift card program are using it as a benefit to create cash flow for struggling franchisees,” Epstein said. “Pushing gift cards to loyal clients keeps them coming back and engaged in the brand, and maybe you can offer them a reward such as a gift card discount to reward them for their loyalty.”

Epstein also recommends keeping brand marketing upbeat and consistent, making sure that customers feel they’re appreciated and that the brand is doing everything they can to ensure safety.

“The brands that put their heads in the sand, shut down and are not there for their customers—they’re the ones that are going to lose,” Epstein said. “Now is the best time to lock them in to your brand… Honestly, it’s a lot easier to develop loyalty to a brand when times are hard, to do more than your competition, be more sensitive, and show loyalty to them by giving them a higher-level reward.”

In the end, these tips are simple: “Stay committed to advertising, overcommunicate, and meet your team and customers where they are,” said O’Brien. “Identify your customer’s pain points and address them creatively. Embrace technology and add value to your market.”

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About This Blog

The latest news, opinions and commentary on what's happening in the franchise arena that could affect your business.

Laura MichaelsLaura Michaels is editor of Franchise Times. She can be reached at 612.767.3210, or send story ideas to lmichaels@franchisetimes.com.
Beth EwenBeth Ewen is senior editor of Franchise Times. She can be reached at 612.767.3212, or send story ideas to bewen@franchisetimes.com.
Nicholas UptonNicholas Upton is restaurants editor at Franchise Times. He can be reached at 612.767.3226, or send story ideas to nupton@franchisetimes.com.
Mary Jo LarsonMary Jo Larson is the publisher of Franchise Times Magazine and the Restaurant Finance Monitor.  You can find her on Twitter at




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