Any successful brand must have a clear set of values to achieve long term success. Brands must offer consistent promises, so customers know what to expect time after time. Brands with longevity recognize the importance of creating an emotional connection with customers. This emotional connection comes from the experiences the brand creates for its consumers. Maintain this emotional connection, and customers will return for the long term.
As Penn Station East Coast Subs celebrates 35 years in business in 2020, this is an ideal time to reflect on how the brand has achieved such longevity. There are a lot of “musts” or ‘givens’ for success: high-quality products, great value, excellent customer service, and a passionate group of brand-centric franchisees. Beyond those basics, there are important operational and practical considerations to achieving long term milestones like 35 years.
Focus on profitability.
Many business owners think they want to grow. That’s a great goal, but only as long as your existing location or locations are profitable. I happened to be on a panel a few years ago at a National Leadership Conference. After speaking about growth and sustainability, I was approached by a gentleman who wanted to know how he could get is a restaurant concept to 10 units. I asked him how many he currently had. He said one. I asked if it was profitable. The answer? “Not really.”
While the input I offered seemed obvious to me, he felt they were keenly insightful. I simply said that before you think about opening a second location—let alone a 10th—your existing location must be profitable. Ensure profitability at an individual level or you’ll never be able to grow to multiple locations. For a franchisor, this means providing your franchisees with the operational tools to give franchisees a greater chance of profitability. Simply stated, unit-level economics is one key to longevity.
Most business owners know that when you maximize efficiencies you maximize profitability, but it’s more complicated than just obtaining low costs from your suppliers. Your goal should instead be to obtain great products at a fair price. The continuity of suppliers is important for brand longevity. To achieve that continuity, you need to develop strong relationships with your key suppliers. Constantly arguing for a better price doesn’t create a partnership. Instead, you too become a commodity in your supplier’s eyes and the relationship becomes transactional and motivated by only money. Would you go above and beyond for someone who always beat you up on pricing every time? Of course, not; you’d simply do the minimum effort.
A great relationship means your suppliers will be more likely to go above and beyond what is necessary to help your business, which as we’ve seen with COVID-19, can be crucial to long-term success. Your suppliers are also experts in their fields, and they can help you solve problems and identify opportunities if you have a great relationship.
Recognize fad versus trend.
Being relevant in consumers’ minds is important for any brand, but that doesn’t mean you should hop on every fad that arises. Make sure you can recognize the difference between pandering to a fad and adapting your system to a trend. For example, when the Adkins diet became popular, many restaurants adjusted their menus significantly. Shortly after, no one cared about the Adkins diet and those brands wasted valuable time and money creating menu items that no longer were relevant and didn’t sell well while they had them on the menu.
Trends stay, and your brand needs to be able to adapt to them. In the fast-casual restaurant industry, for example, off-premises consumption has been on the rise for years, even before COVID-19. Successful brands have adapted their operations to accommodate this trend. If you focus on your customers and what they want, you’ll recognize important trends as your customers do, allowing you to ensure your product and your brand’s look and style are still relevant to consumer preferences as they change. Always be aware of what is happening in your industry so you can respond if necessary.
Cluster locations as close as possible.
When your brand is ready to grow, consider each location carefully. It’s much better to have 10 locations in one city than 10 locations in 10 states. This allows you to play off the synergies of brand recognition. You’ll be more successful in the short and intermediate-term with clustered growth, which allows you to plant deeper roots for long term growth. This clustering makes oversight easier, and it also allows for better logistics for key suppliers or distributors. These traits are important for brand longevity.
Ensure the brand is scalable and consistent.
When a brand starts to grow, consistency is one of the most important considerations. Operations should be followed to a T in all-new locations, and the customer experience should be seamless and consistent from the first location to the newest. To achieve this, make sure your brand is scalable before attempting to grow. Do you have a comprehensive operations manual? Do you have training systems? Do you have employees who can travel to new locations to check on compliance with standards and consistency in all material respects?
The brand’s values should be consistent. Brand values define your company, and if you allow them to be sacrificed in favor of growth, the overall brand will suffer. Through your culture, focus on your most important asset, which is your employees. Pay close attention to legacy and new employees’ opinions because they can tell you a lot about your brand and where it is going.
When you start a business, you don’t set out to fail, so your ultimate goal should be brand longevity. Putting the brand first instead of chasing explosive growth before you are ready can help you reach milestones like 10, 20, or 35 years in business.
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