“This is the most important time in my career to have to act local. If you have 1,000 locations, and you treat those 1,000 locations as one big entity versus 1,000 local businesses today, you’re probably missing out on delivering what your customers need.”
This was T3 CEO Ben Gaddis at the start of the COVID-19 crisis. The agency’s clients include 7-Eleven, Pizza Hut, Capital One and other large, multi-unit brands.
“Consumers both want to know more about their brands, and they want to know that how they spend can make an impact. This means brands need to find creative ways to enable consumers to get behind the curtain to learn about the company’s backstory, its history, its support within its local community and its employees.”
This was Sezzle VP of marketing Chris Bixby from a survey conducted by the payments company. It revealed a connection for Gen Y/Z consumers between shopping locally and aligning with their values. Whether it’s a mom-and-pop coffee shop or a multinational pharmacy chain, consumers want to feel a local connection.
COVID-19 is shining a spotlight on the urgency for national brands to market locally. Brick-and-mortar locations that are part of chain brands, whether in a corporate or franchise model, are, in fact, local businesses that operate within unique local communities. This is how consumers now see them. But it’s not commonly how corporate marketing executives think about the business or the brand.
In many ways local and digital are opposite sides of the same coin. When shelter-in-place orders took effect in March, restaurants with robust digital strategies that included contactless pickup and delivery—I’m talking to you Chipotle and Domino’s Pizza—enjoyed a huge advantage and thrived during this period. Likewise, brands that already had a local marketing strategy have more easily transitioned to this new reality. For CMOs who haven’t pivoted to digital and/or local strategies, it’s not too late. Indeed, it’s the only way forward. So what does a local marketing strategy look like for a national brand?
To paraphrase author Simon Sinek, it starts with a basic question: Why? Why local? The short answer is that the 2020 customer journey has blazed a path through a series of interconnected local channels. This is the result of both long-term (smartphones & wearables) and short-term trends (COVID-19). And it’s projected to become a permanent state for the foreseeable future. If brands are not meeting consumers at this level, they become invisible and cede ground to the competition.
This customer journey often starts with a local search. Google has become the single biggest driver of foot traffic and phone calls to physical locations, and the vast majority of these searches are categorical. In other words, consumers are searching for burrito, coffee shop, hair dresser, smoothie and pharmacy—“near me”—at five times the rate that they search for brand names. Locations that show up in the top three results for these keywords are the ones that get the business. There is no debate about multi-touch attribution or marketing funnels. A consumer has a momentary need. They search for that need on their smartphone and respond to the results by clicking for directions, calling the business or placing an online order. A local transaction has just occurred, little of which ties back to any national brand marketing.
While this might be simple on the surface, small businesses appear much more “local” to consumers and search engines alike. Therefore, they have a distinct advantage over national brands. In order to win these local searches and connect with consumers at this level, brands need a comprehensive strategy.
There are six key pillars to a local strategy: listings, local pages, social media, reputation management, chat bots and localized ads. Each of these can be managed at the corporate, regional and/or local level depending on how organizations and marketing departments are structured.
Listings: This is the foundation for any local strategy. It’s also the easiest to execute, as the listings ecosystem has consolidated to a few key networks. If I’m being honest, it’s really just Google My Business, Facebook, Yelp, Apple Maps and Bing. There was a time when Google crawled dozens of local directories to verify listing accuracy, but that’s no longer the case. While many brands feel more comfortable updating the long tail of listings, there’s little demonstrable value, and the amount of consumer exposure is barely measurable.
Local Pages: Store locators used to be an afterthought. Today, they are a key asset in any local strategy. In many ways these pages have replaced long-tail local directories, as Google gives a lot of weight to information on a brand’s website. Which is advantageous since this is the one area where a brand has complete control. In an ideal execution, these pages should be approached as the website for each business location, much like a mom-and-pop business, with complete and accurate contact details, links to local counterparts on Google, Facebook, etc. and local content. It should celebrate what is unique about that location and the local community it serves.
Social Media: Every multi-unit brand has a Facebook page for each business location whether they want one or not. The only choice is whether to leverage them as a local channel. For many brands these pages have been critical for delivering location-specific details during the pandemic. Fully utilized, though, brands and franchisees can build local Facebook communities that drive loyalty and word-of-mouth buzz that just isn’t possible with a brand-level page. It’s also worth noting that localized content on these pages will influence Google’s local rankings. But the content has to be unique to the page, ideally with location-specific content, and it has to be a standalone post as opposed to a pass-through (waterfall) from the brand page.
Reputation Management: It seems odd in 2020 that one would have to make a case for managing a brand’s online reputation. After all, what’s a brand if not the collective feelings and opinions of its customers? Alas, many local reviews from Google, Facebook, Yelp and others go unread and unresponded to. This does real damage, as a large majority of consumers (at least 70% according to various studies) read online reviews before buying. The good news is that just responding has a measurable impact according to a study published in the Harvard Business Review. What’s more, responding to reviews is a major factor in Google’s local ranking algorithm.
Chat Bots: We’re in the age of mobile messaging. This has become a consumer expectation as Generations Y and Z would just as soon use a fax machine as place an actual phone call. Chat bots in platforms like Facebook Messenger enable brands to be available to chat 24 hours per day. And when it ultimately puts them in touch with a local representative while routing through a CRM system, that’s when the magic happens.
Localized Ads: The most powerful implementation of a local strategy I’ve seen is when marketing organizations enlist local representatives. Specifically, they enable them to take control of their destiny by deploying highly targeted paid media campaigns at the store level with corporate oversight. This might sound like science fiction or else a horror film to many CMOs, but there are ways to manage it at scale. The primary reason is because these people know their local markets. They know when the store needs a boost. They know what message or offer will resonate. So the ads perform exceptionally well, and the representatives actually feel the impact. That’s the business case. But it also empowers these front-line workers, which leads to better employee engagement, morale and retention.
There are a number of platforms and point solutions—a robust ecosystem, in fact—that address each component of a local marketing strategy. Increasingly, multi-location has become a software vertical with high levels of specialization. Enterprise brands can now buy and implement mature technologies that are tailored to their business needs at the brand and local level. As CMOs and CIOs seek to simplify and consolidate their tech stacks over the next decade, the all-in-one solutions will become more attractive, as they tend to reduce cost while increasing both performance and efficiency.