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9 Tips to Protect your Franchise Brand During a Pandemic

Lara Sinclair — 22 January 2021


In uncertain times, people take comfort from familiar things, whether that’s going for a morning walk, ordering their favourite coffee or snack, visiting the gym, or even -- in this time of disrupted retail environments and supply chains -- just being able to buy their preferred brands and products when they need them.

As we find ourselves starting 2021 in much the same way we ended 2020 -- in a world impacted by the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic -- franchise brands have an opportunity to contribute some small level of comfort by providing the service and consistency their consumers expect.

Wherever people are, if they know your brand or service, they know what to expect from you. According to Nielsen, a brand name can be one of the most valuable assets a company possesses, lending “credibility to product efficacy and providing an assurance of quality”, which explains why most people prefer to buy from brands they know.

But franchise brands -- unlike others that are completely managed by internal marketing teams -- need to strike a balance between the centralized brand controls that underpin brand consistency and the autonomy franchisees need.

And sometimes they get caught up in brand-related commotions not of their own making.

In a recent US example, McDonald’s Maryland franchisee Jim Wagy said (in a now-deleted Facebook post) he had an “EPIC time” attending the January 6 protests that led to an incursion in the US Capitol -- the same week the chain’s CEO condemned US President Donald Trump and “elected officials who incited this insurrection”.

That prompted McDonald’s Corporate to say in a statement it “found these social media posts particularly troubling and offensive to so many who wear the McDonald’s uniform… We mean it when we say inclusion is a core value, and we’re looking into this very closely”. Wagy also released a statement saying he was not part of the actual incursion and did not support it.

Politics isn’t always the culprit when it comes to brand risk -- often it’s just an over-zealous franchisee running local area marketing that shows your brand in an unfamiliar light, using incorrect brand colours or featuring unapproved brand imagery that is not in keeping with your brand guidelines.

But when you’re overseeing brand compliance for multiple franchisees within your network, achieving the brand consistency you need can be a time-consuming headache.

Most franchise marketers would rather spend their time working on a new product launch, developing new campaign material or updating brand strategy than acting as the brand police.

And most franchisees would rather be out there promoting their local business than second-guessing head office, obtaining approval for minor marketing jobs or waiting weeks for Corporate to supply requested materials.

Franchise brands often perform better than independents in a recessionary environment -- partly because franchises are more likely to continue advertising and marketing activity even in a downturn.

So how can you protect your franchise brand -- and still conduct all the marketing your franchisees need -- in a pandemic-affected world?

1. Re-examine your brand purpose, promise and positioning

“Consumers have rewarded brands prioritising the health and wellbeing of their staff while continuing to deliver vital products and services during the pandemic,” according to Deloitte chief marketing officer Annabel Rake. “[But they] have been quick to make an example of companies seen to be acting for profit alone.”

What is your brand purpose? Does it still resonate? Is it meaningful? Re-examine the key pillars of your brand in the light of the ongoing pandemic. Fine-tune or re-create them to ensure your brand is relevant and resonates with employees and customers alike. We have a helpful ebook that can assist you with this process. Download it here.

2.Over-communicate with stakeholders

Ensure your franchise organization’s head office and franchisee network are on the same page when it comes to anything COVID-related.

Consider establishing a COVID action committee so you can make decisions that affect your franchisees quickly. Communicate them via your company intranet or another established conduit of corporate information and ensure it’s updated regularly.

3. Document and distribute your brand guidelines

Clear and easily accessible brand guidelines are a must to help franchisees continue your consistent brand presence in their signage and local area marketing activity.

Brand guidelines should include:

  • Approved logo styles and placement instructions
  • Imagery standards
  • Approved colour palette including pantone, HEX and CMYK codes
  • Approved fonts and icons
  • Examples of acceptable use and unacceptable use
  • Brand tone, voice and personality statement
  • Copy style guide

Ensure your brand guidelines are centrally accessible. This is key to helping maintain a strong franchise network in uncertain times. Brand management tools, such as the core product we offer at Outfit, can help you with this task.

4. Exercise your corporate empathy muscle

Customer mindsets can change quickly as pandemic-related impacts make themselves felt. Are you striking the right tone in your marketing materials? Show your organization understands and empathises with your customers’ situation.

Review your online, in-market, automation and franchise marketing materials to ensure they’re up-to-date. Road-test your messaging and corporate actions beyond the marketing team.

It can be costly to get it wrong: Deloitte Digital research carried out in Britain found that one in five (20%) consumers stopped using a business due to their response to COVID-19.

  1. Over-communicate with customers

Keep consumers updated with the latest information related to your brand. Keep them informed of changes to your opening hours or operating procedures. These can change quickly as economies, states and local areas open up or shut down. Be prepared for possible contingencies so you can respond rapidly.

Create and update COVID-19 ‘packs’ to help franchisees communicate key issues such as hygiene measures and social distancing requirements to customers, as many organizations have done.

6. Centralize your approved marketing assets

Create a central repository for all the approved marketing assets needed by franchisees. Make your approved assets centrally accessible and keep them updated so there’s never any doubt which is the latest version of the assets your franchisees can use or how to find them.

Real estate chain and Outfit customer, Ray White, demonstrated the value of providing relevant materials to its network during the pandemic, increasing marketing collateral usage among its agents from 40% to 95% and boosting its brand presence in the process.

7. Plan to be responsive

As we’ve learned, in a pandemic, things change all the time. Unblock your marketing processes so you can respond quickly.

Consider templatizing your most commonly used marketing assets within a brand automation system, so they can be updated and distributed quickly, without time-consuming production or approval bottlenecks.

If you can respond within hours rather than days or weeks, you will most likely get the jump on your competitors.

9. Continue to invest in your brand

Most countries are experiencing a recessionary economic environment, with whole sectors shut down and others operating at reduced or changed capacity, which puts pressure on marketing budgets. But brands should aim to conserve enough budget to maintain or increase their share of voice to protect market share in a recession, advertising researchers Peter Field and Rob Brittain argue in their report, Winning or Losing in a Recession. Conversely, not maintaining spending in a recession puts brands at risk.

“It’s all about defending enough marketing dollars to stay in the game to ensure you’re healthy enough for the recovery -- that is the strong case for advertising spending,” Field says.

In the US, marketing spending as a proportion of revenue hit historic highs last year, reaching 12.6% in May, according to the CMO Survey conducted by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Up from 11.3% in January 2020, spending was proportionally higher than it had been in the previous 10 years of the survey.

10. Proactively manage risk

Use a brand compliance, brand management or brand automation platform with built-in approvals to provide a greater level of clarity and control over approval processes while minimising bottlenecks.

Using a brand automation that enables franchisees to use approved templates to self-create on-brand assets, will both eliminate brand boo-boos and reduce marketing production and approval timelines.

And a quick reminder -- don’t forget to monitor social channels for off-brand messaging and have a process for rapidly rectifying breaches.

Apply these 9 tips to protect your brand during the COVID-19 pandemic and balance the autonomy your franchisees want with the impact your brand needs to achieve the consistency your customers expect.

For more on how to protect your brand, download our eBook The Branding Guide to Franchise Success.