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Come Clean When Changes Are Afoot

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Article, BRW Fast Franchises, 2012 - A hundred pairs of eyes followed Jim Cornish as he took to the podium at a gathering of Ecowash Mobile franchisees in September 2009. The global financial crisis was hammering the recently launched US branch of his car cleaning business but some clever franchisees making gold in the deserts of the Middle East and his European franchisees were holding their own.

In Australia business was good; the financial slowdown had led to a drop off in inquiries from potential franchisees but the businesses that were already established were doing well.

In spite of it all, Cornish was about to radically overhaul the brand upon which his franchisees had built their business and he knew his successor failure rested entirely on the people waiting expectantly for him to begin.

Although business was good, he’d taken the unusual step to commission comprehensive brand research to find out what existing and potential customers understood from the bright orange Ecowash Mobile brand he’s started in 2004.

The result pointed to an almost total disconnect between the service the company provided, which was waterless car cleaning service using a spray-on polymer, and the message it converyed.

“The consumer research we’d done with the brand showed that while our existing customer were very happy with the service, people who saw the brand for the first time were confused about what it was we were offering,” Cornish says. “We called ourselves Ecowash Mobile but we weren’t actually washing the cars because there was no water involved and the focus was on our environmental credentials – but it was becoming clear that looking after the environment needs to be a standard which underpins the company, not a marketing tool.”

There was also confusion about the use of the word “mobile” in the company’s name, because although some customers were aware that the service was delivered from the back of a car, others were used to using it at fixed sites and considered it convenient rather than mobile.

To make matters worse, the environmental bandwagon had hit full throttle five years since Cornish had started the service and there were a number of copycat services using the “eco” prefix.

“What the research told us is that we needed to reposition the brand so that it focused on the convenience and quality,” Cornish says. “But it was going to be a hard sell to our franchisees who had built their business around a brand and it had a lot of momentum.”

According to the chief executive of brand and marketing group Interbrand, Damian Borchock, many franchisors fail to realize the extent to which their brand is owned by the franchisee network until they try to modify it in some way.

“The franchise model is probably one of the toughest to deal with when you are going through a rebranding process Borchock says. “I’ve seen brand owners get halfway through a process before they realize they are almost completely beholden to their network of franchisees, which is why making such changes can be so cumbersome.”

The challenge is such, according to Borchock that many franchises limp for years with a brand that is out of date or disconnected from its audience because the franchisor is not willing or able to take its franchisees on.

It took no less than a seven-hour presentation which delved deep inside the company’s offering, structure and approach to service delivery, to explain how consumers were responding to the brand and how it was being routinely misinterpreted.

Cornish had to bring his franchisees along with him, without disparaging the commitment they had to the existing brand and offering.

We focused on the passion they felt about the Ecowash Mobile brand and tried to demonstrate that was a passion felt for the service they had created themselves,” Cornish says.

“That passion came from who we are as a company and that we wouldn’t change but that the brand would need to better reflect who we were underneath.

“By the end of it, most of the franchisees could see the logic behind what we were doing and they were happy to go along with it but there were still about 10 per cent who remained skeptical.”

Having taken a very hands-on approach to the development and growth of the Ecowash Mobile brand at the franchisee level, Cornish was well aware of what he was asking of his franchisees and was keen to bring them on the journey.

After we went through the presentation, I was hoping it would be a little like flicking a switch but of course it took a little while to make the change,” Cornish says. “I knew that once we’d convinced the franchisees, the customers would follow.”

In September 2009, the new brand, Nanotek Car Cleaning, was adopted throughout Australia and by the company’s divisions in Europe and the Middle East. After a few months bedding down the changes, Cornish was able to turn his attention to global markets.

The company’s initial expansion into the US had taken place on the cusp of the global financial crisis. Markets were tumbling but the falls had yet to affect jobs or consumer confidence. Within a few short months, the number of expressions of interest from the US had dropped from hundreds a month to one or two and many of the initial franchisees had taken on part-time work because they lacked the confidence to start a business in a downturn.

One by one the franchisees dropped off and rather than force the US business to close, Cornish let the business wither, with the view to relaunching it when the time was right.

In the interim the business in Saudi Arabia, which Cornish says is more akin to a car cleaning café than a mobile model that has driven growth in Australia, has expanded significantly.

The French manufacturer of the spray-on polymer that underpins the company’s cleaning technique was so impressed with by the jump in sales in the Australian market that it adopted Cornish’s franchise model and European divisions have opened up in Romania and Russia. Cornish, who spent a lot of time working directly with franchisees in the early days of the business, is seeing his role shift.

“At the moment the majority  of our revenue is still coming from Australia but I expect that balance to shift in 2012. We’ll see a lot more business in Eastern Europe and I’ve been to China a few times in the past year, but it’s a very different market,” Cornish says.

“I’ve always been focused on duplicating systems at the franchise  level. Now I’m looking at duplicating systems at a country level to make sure it’s done in a way that is flexible while remaining true to the brand.”

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