Friendly’s Faces the Future

Recently, Friendly’s, the 80 year old east coast, family-friendly restaurant known for its ice cream creations and flavors, along with signature sandwiches, burgers and other main courses, hired a new advertising agency. The new advertising agency will help Friendly’s transform itself into a modern, fast-casual restaurant that is more in touch with our “on-the-go’ dining behaviors. The agency’s task is to revitalize an aging brand.

Founded in 1935, Friendly’s became a place to take the kids where adults could enjoy a nice, substantial meal at a fair price. Since 1935 dining out with kids changed. Fast food brands offer family-friendly environments. Frozen treats chains offer ice creams and frozen yogurts. Entertainment dining options (i.e., Chuck E Cheese) make dining fun. Casual dining restaurants offer kids’ menus. People are having fewer children. Now, Friendly’s finds itself in a shrinking market with a shrinking need with a shrinking customer base. 

To make matters worse, Friendly’s fell into a vicious cycle of being bought and sold. Friendly’s has had numerous owners (Hershey’s, Sun Capital, Dean Foods), none of which were able to get Friendly’s back in sync with customers. And, as part of this vicious vortex, Friendly’s filed for bankruptcy twice. Also, Friendly’s closed numerous stores up-and-down the Eastern Seaboard. 

In early 2021, Amici Partners Group, an investor group with expertise in restaurants, purchased Friendly’s. Amici Partners Group is affiliated with BRIX Holdings, owner of RedBrick Pizza Kitchen Café, Souper Salad, Red Mango Yogurt Café Smoothie and Juice Bar, and other restaurant chain brands.

Friendly’s describes itself as “… an iconic brand offering everyday value, full-service … with great tasting food and ice cream creations.” Now, Friendly’s wants to be a player in “on demand dining” while keeping its essence as a joyful, fun place to eat with fair prices and great service. According to recent press releases, Friendly’s wants to deliver a revitalized brand experience in a fast casual, take out, grab-and-go digital dining world.

This will be a challenge. But, Friendly’s can be revitalized. 

Friendly’s has a foundation that is relevant in any age. The key will be to modernize its provenance without completely discarding the brand’s inherent, powerful values. Sure, Friendly’s has been in trouble over its eight decades. But, Friendly’s heritage provides an enduring fundamental core. 

Legacies can actually be liberating if managed properly.

However, brand revitalization is more complex than hiring an advertising agency. Successful brand revitalization requires a disciplined adherence to six basic rules. 

The six rules for brand revitalization are:

  1. Refocus the Organization
  2. Restore Brand Relevance
  3. Reinvent the Brand Experience
  4. Reinforce a Results Culture
  5. Rebuild Brand Trust
  6. Realize Global Alignment (if a global brand)

Refocus the organization around financial discipline, operational excellence, leadership marketing and the brand’s purpose.

Friendly’s is familiar with this first rule. Friendly’s has a deep-rooted ethic dedicated to growth and operational excellence. 

According to an online archive from its Hershey-owned days (1999), Friendly’s believed success would be based on its ability to: “Achieve profitable growth by leveraging Friendly’s brand strengths and heritage, while utilizing franchising as a key growth initiative designed to fully penetrate identified opportunity markets,” 

Financial discipline means getting back to profitability: stop the bleeding, eliminate waste, improve productivity. Friendly’s already endured massive store closings. Friendly’s emerged from two bankruptcies. Cost cutting alone should not be the only solution. There may not be anything left to cut. 

Operational excellence means delighting customers with a branded experience so an increasing percentage of them look forward to purchasing the brand more often. Key is achieving an efficient and effective balance between meeting customer expectations and minimizing waste. Friendly’s already understands this. One of its guiding principles was Operations Excellence: “Consistently achieve operations excellence – 100% guest satisfaction, 100% of the time… taking great care of our guests, no matter what it takes.”

Leadership marketing means attracting new customers to the brand, encouraging existing customers to purchase more often and increasing customer loyalty. Operational excellence moves customers to the door; leadership marketing moves them into the store. Friendly’s move to communicate its new direction will help.

The brand’s goal – its purpose – clarifies the brand’s strategic direction. Purpose articulates the brand’s intent: its North Star. In the online archive, Friendly’s North Star was: “To be the leading casual full service restaurant/ice cream shoppe and premium retail ice cream brand in the Eastern United States…known for operations excellence, great signature foods, famous ice cream shoppe desserts, sparkling clean facilities, prompt, friendly service and dedicated, talented people… resulting in outstanding customer loyalty and consistent profitable growth.” There is a lot to work with here.

Friendly’s must focus on articulating and implementing a relevant, differentiated North Star as Friendly’s is aiming for the already crowded, competitive fast casual category.

Restore brand relevance through a thorough knowledge of the market, needs-based occasion driven market segmentation and a clear statement of the brand’s brand promise. 

There is nothing more important in brand revitalization than understanding what is relevant to today’s customers. Know your customers as if they were your BFFs. Focus on customer needs, problems and occasions. 

Articulate a compelling brand promise describing the trustworthy branded experience that will be delivered in a quality manner, each time, every time, to each and every customer. 

Friendly’s has a history of quality and integrity as expressed in its value statements: (Integrity) “Practice the highest standards of business ethics and integrity in all lines of our work.” And, (Quality) “Consistently exceed our customer’s expectations in terms of great tasting recipes, spectacular presentation, quality and value.”

The dining landscape changed around Friendly’s. Customers changed attitudes and behaviors. Friendly’s advertising will only work if there is a truly insightful understanding of how to solve for customers’ altered perceptions of family-friendly dining.

Reinvent the brand experience through innovation, renovation, focusing on the brand’s Trustworthy Brand Value, the brand’s fair value and the total brand experience. 

Innovation and renovation create news. News moves customers into the store, onto the website, onto the app. Product and service innovation and renovation are essential for enduring profitable growth. News generates frequency. News helps to change behavior.

Build trustworthiness. Customers’ new value equation is Trustworthy Brand Value: what the customer receives (functional emotional and social benefits) relative to the perceived costs (money, time and effort) multiplied by trust. Without trust, a brand has no value. To generate Trustworthy Brand Value, the brand’s inherent value must be perceived as fair value. More than price, fairness means that the benefits-per-costs are equitable and just. Friendly’s has always promised fair value. Keeping this promise will build trustworthiness.

Total brand experience defines what the brand will do for its customers. How will the brand’s people deliver the brand’s experience? How will the brand’s product and/or service deliver the brand’s experience? How will the brand’s place (store, website, app, etc.) deliver the brand’s experience? How will the brand’s price deliver the brand’s experience? How will efforts to promote the brand deliver the brand’s experience?

Friendly’s must assess its perceived trustworthiness while updating its total brand experience. Years of financial instability and store closings affect customer perceptions of trustworthiness.

Reinforce a results culture by establishing measurable milestones, through recognition and rewards and by implementing a balanced brand-business scorecard.

This should not be difficult for Friendly’s. It has a results culture provenance: “Build a results driven organization by attracting, motivating and retaining a diverse, talented and friendly workforce who takes responsibility and has a passion for great service and a keen sense of urgency for fulfilling customer needs,” as stated in the online archive.

Measurable milestones help measure progress. People need to know where the organization is headed and whether the organization is making meaningful progress in getting there.

People manage what management measures, recognizes and rewards. Leadership defines how progress will be measured. The right results must be produced in the right way for the right reasons. Recognition is visible, public and vocal praise, acclaim and tribute in front of your team, your function or the entire brand or company.

A balance brand-business scorecard is a single integrated report card with metrics that represent business strengths and weaknesses as well as brand strengths and weaknesses. Prove progress.

With its checkered history, an immediate must-do for Friendly’s is to galvanize the organization and all stakeholders into believing the brand is stable and capable. Everyone must become an adherent of the new brand direction.

Rebuild brand trust both internally and externally. 

Friendly’s has always been dedicated to building trust with investors and with the community. 

Friendly’s values and guiding principles state, “Continually increase shareholder value through annual increases in customer counts and through performance focused on return on investment, asset productivity, cash flow returns and a strengthened balance sheet.” And, “Solidify Friendly’s image by developing strong, sincere and long term community relationships.

Trust must be earned. It does happen automatically. Friendly’s has endured some troubling times. Trust is needed on the inside and the outside.

Internally, rebuild commitment through education, implementation, inspiration and evaluation. Externally, rebuild trust by following the five principles of trust building: You are what you do; Lead the debate; do not hide from it; Openness is an opportunity; Be a trustworthy source of trustworthy messages; Be a good citizen.

Trust rebuilding requires amassing Trust Capital, along with the other sources of organizational wealth: Financial Capital, Intellectual Capital, Human Capital, Climate Capital and Social Capital. Trust Capital is the customer confidence in the authority, credibility, integrity, leadership and responsibility of the organization to deliver promises of value to all stakeholders.

Realize global alignment (if global) through creating a brand framework and a Plan to Win, and through managing using a collaborative three-box model.

Friendly’s has a heritage of strategic planning for the future. As stated in a guiding principle: “Apply a strategic and planned approach to developing the Friendly’s brand both short and long term, through full-service family-oriented restaurants, retail expansion and other brand tested channels of distribution.”

A Brand Framework provides the non-negotiable guidelines and policies that define the brand’s common customer experience.  The Framework creates the brand’s boundary lines within which the brand is to be communicated and delivered. 

A Plan to Win is a one-page aligning document that articulates 8 must-do’s: the brand purpose, promise, 5 actions (people, product/service, place, price, promotion) and performance metrics. Friendly’s 9 values and guiding principles ( focus, growth, brand, operations, people, integrity, quality, shareholder, community) form a solid starting point.

A collaborative three-box model for global brands is all about shared responsibility. It requires brand personnel to coordinate, cooperate and collaborate. 

Although Friendly’s is not global, the brand must create its brand framework to guide its creativity. And, having a Plan to Win will ensure that everyone knows what to do, when to do and what it will achieve and when. Friendly’s values and guiding principles are an excellent start.

Brand rejuvenation is more than an advertising campaign. Friendly’s has a provenance that connected with customers for decades. Figuring out how to bring that core back to life in a compelling, surprising, delightful, exciting, quality manner for a new, demanding dining marketplace will require following the six rules of brand revitalization.