How can multi-location businesses deliver consistent but customized brand experiences at scale?  The people working in each of your locations have the potential to be a part of your marketing team – can you trust them with your brand?

Consistent brand experiences establish trust and turn customers into loyal, engaged supporters. People crave consistency from interactions with companies and organizations.  They don’t like surprises – they like comfort.  If your business has multiple locations, brand consistency is an even more important trust signal.  For example, when a person walks into a Chipotle, they already have an expectation of what their brand experience should be.  If that experience falls short, they’re unhappy with Chipotle the brand, not just that one Chipotle location.

Starbucks is the gold standard of brand consistency.  This is their brand mission: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.”  Starbucks has many brand touchpoints and standards that are managed by a corporate team.  How the pastries are arranged; where in the cafe the newspapers are stacked; when it’s the right time to ask for a customer’s name; how long a barista spends in training – these things are consistent between all Starbucks locations.  Individual locations are required to follow brand guidelines, but they are also empowered to carry out the brand mission and cater to the neighborhoods they operate in.

Starbucks understands that coffee is important to people, but they put more emphasis on providing strong brand experiences at each of their locations.  There is a Starbucks in my hometown of Edmonton, Alberta that hosts a board games night once a month.  Why?  To encourage community interaction, and of course, more evening business.  It makes sense because their mission is about nurturing and neighbourhood involvement.  No one from head office called them and said, “have a board game night”.  The team at this location lives the Starbucks’ brand promise and knew that a board game night would make sense for their patrons.

That is how you end up with a marketing team that’s larger than you think.

This isn’t an easy process.  How do you give freedom and flexibility for your locations to adapt to local conditions and habits, while still supporting and strengthening your brand consistency?  Comprehensive brand training and clearly communicated standards are required, but not everything can be rigid.  Trusting your locations to deliver spontaneous on-brand extensions is the key.  Spontaneity can establish a deep and lasting connection with current and potential customers.  Trader Joe’s turned a snowstorm and a phone call into a memorable brand experience.

The trick here is that the person on the phone didn’t have to say, “Oh, hang on, I’m gonna check with my manager.  Oh, hang on, I’m gonna check with corporate.”  They said, “Yes, we’ll do it.  No problem.  We have delicious salt-free tortilla chips!  Oh, and hey, by the way, it’s free.”  Imagine each of your locations knowing your brand so well that in the moment, they can make smart, spontaneous decisions like that one with confidence.

There are two major keys to building this kind of experience – communications infrastructure and trust.

When is the last time you spoke to someone working on the floor at one of your locations?  What about the last time your store managers in the same city talked to each other about common issues or successes?  This might seem like a daunting task, but it is a valuable exercise in strengthening your brand across your multiple locations.

Maybe you have an antagonistic history with some of your locations.  Perhaps they resent being told what to do because they know it isn’t working, and they feel like their concerns about first-hand experiences are not being heard.  In order to develop collaboration-based marketing, you need to have strong relationships with your locations.  If your corporate management style is very top-down, this method will likely not work.  Top-down direction doesn’t play well with location empowerment.  Brand empowerment is not about asserting control over every interaction.  You must establish the framework for a strong brand experience and then encourage locations to personalize individual customer interactions within that framework.

It’s helpful to investigate customer journeys to identify the points where brand extensions can happen.  You’ll learn whether or not your brand guidelines currently have a foundation that locations can build on to deliver unscripted, but on-brand, customer experiences.  Again, remember to go beyond a top-down approach – ask people working in your locations to contribute their customer-facing knowledge to this endeavor.

A real-time communication solution between your corporate marketing team and your locations, such as ‘Slack’, can have a significant impact on your business.  Email doesn’t provide a real-time, engaged experience the way a company-wide chat program does.  A real-time communications tool also makes reacting to current events more consistent across your entire brand.  Imagine your individual locations comparing stories and helping each other get better without you having to guide every moment.  Sharing best practices, successes, and failures becomes easier because everyone will see your conversations and learn from shared experiences.

You can dig further into real-time communications by integrating a tool such as ‘Zapier’ into your Slack channels.  For example, Zapier could capture any tweets made within a certain radius of a location that mention certain keywords, such as “cell service” or “bank”, and push it to the Slack channel for that specific location so they can respond if needed.  Your CRM should also become more robust – if you have a customer’s email address, you can use ‘FullContact’ to associate that email to social profiles and monitor for poor sentiment along with the product or service your company provides.  Don’t wait for an angry customer to call you out on social media before taking steps to fix their issue.

When you strengthen communications and empower more location-based employees to contribute, your marketing team is better prepared to scale.  If you have a small team managing your social, each member of that team is subject to Dunbar’s number.  Your ability to engage and understand your biggest fans is limited by the number of people on your team.  If you allow your individual locations to get involved in social media, you can scale Dunbar’s number – 150 people can become 15,000 people.  By decentralizing communications and social media, you open up the possibilities of how many people your company can engage with meaningfully.

This entire concept requires a great deal of trust.  If you already know you can’t trust the people working in your locations, fix that first.  Your brand voice needs to serve as a basis for your hiring decisions – like Starbucks does.  It’s much easier to have your employees manage your brand properly if your values resonate with them.

Marketing shouldn’t just be in the job description of your CMO – it must be at least 1% of everyone’s job. Everything you do needs to be on-brand – specifically hiring and training, because you need to provide the right resources to establish trust for location-specific, spontaneous brand extensions.

This does not happen quickly.  Create one-year, five-year, and ten-year plans that are tied to the goals of strengthening your brand and growing your marketing team across all of your locations.  If you unlock marketing on a local level as well as a national or international level, while maintaining a seamless brand experience throughout all customer interactions, you will win.