Can You Franchise an Unsexy Concept?

Can You Franchise an Unsexy Concept?


A frequently asked question, especially from my more entrepreneurial clients, is, ‘Why would anyone ever buy this franchise?’ This question is usually followed by a series of observations: “Anyone could do it.” “There’s nothing to this business.” “I don’t think this business can be franchised.”

And of course, the underlying question, “Why wouldn’t someone simply do this themselves?”

Their concerns are valid ones. Some concepts are simply not well differentiated. Moreover, some of them have low barriers to entry.

So can a business that is not unique still franchise successfully? And if so, how?

The Mindset of the Entrepreneur

Whenever I hear these questions, my first response is to point to some of the undifferentiated concepts that have achieved high levels of success in the marketplace. “What about janitorial services – why have they been so successful?” Then I go through the list. Maid services. Lawn care. Carpet cleaning. Temporary and permanent placement firms. And the list goes on.

The fact of the matter is, a significant number of franchise companies are in industries in which their products or services are not readily differentiated.

What these questioning entrepreneurs fail to understand is that, as entrepreneurs, they are the one group on earth that is perhaps the least suited to understand the mindset of the prospective franchisee.

The typical entrepreneur is, at least by my definition, someone who never saw a rule he or she did not want to break. And, in many respects, the entrepreneur is often the last person you would want to be a franchisee. The best franchisees are not the rule-breakers. And, in fact, the truly entrepreneurial are often the least inclined to buy a franchise.

The best franchisees are motivated adopters – people willing to accept some level of risk, but people who, nonetheless, are willing to follow the rules established by their franchisor.

But if the franchisee isn’t buying your ‘secret recipe,’ what exactly are they buying?

Ultimately, what the franchise prospect is buying is the combination of two things: a strong value proposition and a unique market position.

Developing the Value Proposition

If you are thinking about franchising a business that you feel isn’t particularly sexy or unique, chances are you have already watched a number of your competitors come and go. Why did they fail, while you survived with a similar product or service? The answer is the system.

The system is the embodiment of all those things that make the ultimate difference between success or failure. Site selection. Lease negotiation. Advertising. Customer service. Branding. Positioning. Purchasing. Pricing. Merchandising. Hiring. Training. Managing. Quality control. Financial management. It can be found in everything from the products you buy to the way your people answer the phones.

When someone buys a McDonald’s franchise, they aren’t doing it because they want the recipe for the ‘special sauce’ on the Big Mac, or because they believe that McDonald’s serves the world’s finest hamburgers. It’s for their systems, which are among the best in the world.

The best companies have developed their system to ensure consistency at the consumer level. And that is what your franchisees want to buy – a consistent consumer experience that has been proven in the marketplace.

Your job, as the franchisor of an undifferentiated concept, is to show the franchisee how to replicate your success. Through a combination of services and support, you need to teach your franchisee how to achieve what you have.

That means developing training programmes, operations manuals, site selection criteria, advertising guidelines and other elements of ‘the system’, as well as the benefits of your labour and relationships, that will allow your franchisees to take advantage of the intellectual property you have developed. Combined, these elements constitute the value proposition that your franchisee will pay you for. But the value proposition alone is not enough.

Positioning your Concept

Even the most mundane concept can work as a franchise if it can be replicated. But if your system does not have that special ‘sizzle’, you may have to work hard to sell it.

For those few concepts that are fortunate enough to be ‘first movers’, their first position in the market can be enough – assuming, of course, that they grow fast enough to maintain brand dominance. But for the rest, a value proposition alone will not be enough. The concept will need to be differentiated from others if it hopes to achieve any significant level of success.

Let’s take another look at McDonald’s. In the early years, it was a simple concept – basically, hamburgers and fries with drinks. And for years after they started franchising, dozens of franchised competitors came and went. All, that is, except for a select few.

Burger King realised McDonald’s had staked out the ‘fast burger’ segment in the market and knew if it were to compete with McDonald’s, it had to differentiate itself in the eyes of the consumer. So it adopted a position that McDonald’s could not attack: ‘Have it your way, at Burger King.’

The genius of this position was that Burger King had staked out a position to which McDonald’s could not competitively respond. Burger King’s operating system differentiated it from McDonald’s, and McDonald’s was not in a position to revamp its operating system to respond to this new threat. And Burger King prospered.

Over the years, more competitors came and went. More than a decade later, Wendy’s cracked the ‘Big Two’ with a different form of differentiation: marketing. At that time, McDonald’s and Burger King were promoting to children.

Wendy’s succeeded where others had failed by offering, ‘old-fashioned’, made-to-order hamburgers, and promoting to an older audience, using an octogenarian spokesperson asking, “Where’s the Beef?”

To succeed in franchising, especially if you are in a commodity-type market, you have to differentiate your concept from those of your established franchised competitors. That differentiation can come at the operational level (as in the case of Burger King), in the form of marketing (Wendy’s) or in a number of other forms.

Some concepts differentiate themselves in the eyes of their franchisees by offering a lower investment franchise package (a double-drive thru hamburger operation is less expensive to build and operate than a Burger King).

Others differentiate based on services, both high and low: Some franchisors tout their high levels of service. Some janitorial service franchisors, for example, will actually procure their franchisee’s customer, so all the franchisee has to do is to service the account.

Others have taken the opposite approach. Some carpet cleaning and postal service franchises got their start by promoting themselves as ‘the un-franchise’, touting minimal fees and minimal intrusion into day-to-day operations.

Contractually, franchisors can differentiate themselves through a more liberal contract, reduced fees or royalties, a bigger territory, or different support services.

Mark Siebert
As a franchise consultant since 1985, Mark Siebert founded the iFranchise Group, a franchise consulting firm, in 1999. During his career, Mark has personally assisted more than 30 Fortune 1000 companies and over 200 startup franchisors. He regularly conducts workshops and seminars on franchising around the world. For more than a decade, Mark also has been actively involved in assisting U.S. franchisors in expanding abroad. In 2001, he co-founded Franchise Investors Inc., an investment firm specializing in franchise companies. He's on the board of directors of the American Association of Franchisees and Dealers and the board of advisors to Connections for Community Ownership, which encourages minority business and job development through franchising.