It sounds complicated, but it’s not. It boils down to this: sincerity. And it’s fundamental when it comes to your efforts at community involvement.
Before you roll your eyes and get all, “Duh!” think how often you’ve heard the complaint, “We always do things for the community, but it never does us any good.”
This is a sincerity issue, manifest in two mistaken assumptions: 1) giving is a reciprocal agreement; 2) all “do-gooding” builds (and lives) your brand.
In the first place, if it’s reciprocal, it’s a trade. In the second place, “community involvement” is more than giving away a pair of dinners in a church raffle. This is only a brand-builder if you intend to do it two people at a time.
Teaming your family concept with an ecumenical group to host “Family Dinner Night” with a chunk of the proceeds going to a local food bank -- that’s building your brand while living it.
The larger problem for many chains is that community involvement is both transitory and as self-servingly transparent as the emperor’s new clothes. People feel played, and they don’t like it.
It’s how I feel when I look at the recently revamped website for a large deli concept.
The chain has conspicuously branded itself as a healthy food outlet, with 41 references to “organic” in its menu, plus a litany of stuff its food is free of — MSG, nitrites, coloring, dyes, transfats, fructose, etc.
But this “healthy option” branding isn’t corroborated by community efforts such as healthy eating education, local organic purchasing programs or community garden sponsorships. One blog recounts a visit by management to a distant, gigantic farm where much of the company’s produce is grown. Nowhere does this blog contain the word “organic.” Brand not lived.
The site does offer information about “community partner programs” that discount meals to seniors and church groups, and give well-behaved schoolchildren free lunch cards to use at the restaurant (presumably taken there by their parents who also presumably will buy a meal). In reality, none of these “partnerships” is designed to do anything but bring in business.
See what I mean? Not feeling brand life here.
So how can your chain honestly, authentically live its brand through meaningful community involvement?
Get involved. Not with any cause du jour, but with one that clicks with your customer base and corresponds to your brand’s character and values.
A great example right now is Nathan’s Famous Frankfurters, which is teaming with the Pittsburgh YWCA to build a franchise in that organization’s downtown location. Both benefit: the YWCA from a new revenue stream and Nathan’s from a high-visibility, high-traffic store in partnership with a nonprofit whose brand is likewise built on the idea of American opportunity.
That’s not just living your brand. That’s living it large.
Let me say here that if you can’t readily define your customer base, character and values, back up and figure them out with a brand study. Before you live your brand, know what makes your brand live. Also, if you intend to define (or redefine) your brand through community involvement, re-read the example above.
One more thing: enact your program company-wide. Set the parameters and provide the energy at the top level to ensure that all locations live the same brand. They don’t have to do exactly the same things, but they must support the same fundamentals: customer base, character and values. And really, most franchisees will be glad not to have to invent their own programs.
So, here are the steps, simply stated:
Choose an organization or cause that you care about, that your customers care about and that wants your help;
Get involved — join a committee, coach a team, serve on the board, encourage employees to give their time (if you really want to live your brand, make at least some of this paid time);
Volunteer your restaurant as host-sponsor for events (e.g., the Family Dinner Night mentioned earlier). Offer ideas — your organization doesn’t know what all you can do;
Look into “alternative opportunities” — kiosks, carts, food trucks or a mobile kitchen — for events in which your organization participates. This can further the partnership and introduce your brand and values to entire new audiences.
Lori Walderich is chief creative officer at IdeaStudio, a chain restaurant marketing and promotions firm. Her company helps restaurant clients align their branding and implement strategic marketing plans to achieve consistent, sustainable growth.