More than just a new look

The strategy behind the Cousins Subs rebrand

branding

When she is not sitting behind her desk in her executive office in Menomonee Falls, Cousins Subs chief executive officer Christine Specht is standing behind the register at a Cousins Subs restaurant interacting with their guests.

A few years ago, family-owned Cousins Subs (founded by Specht’s father, Bill Specht, with his cousin two years before she was born) launched its initiative to rebrand its locations system-wide to be consistent in look and feel. This decision to rebrand originated from an analysis of guest, franchisee and management feedback as well as Specht’s own observations while interacting with guests. In my recent interview with her, we discussed the rebranding effort that is underway chain-wide.

Wikipedia defines “rebranding” as a marketing strategy intended to provide a new, differentiated identity in the minds of guests, investors, competitors and other stakeholders. So why did Cousins Subs move ahead with this strategy?

The brand’s executive team analyzed feedback from guests, franchisees and managers and realized that their guests were having an inconsistent experience by location. From this analysis emerged their strategy to provide a “consistent and uniform” experience at all restaurants. They are striving for consistency at their nearly 100 locations in Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois, which would result in revenue growth by opening their doors to a new generation of guests and improved guest satisfaction.

This rebranding strategy is intended to propel Cousins into the middle of this new decade. But Specht said she understands there are risks associated with a system-wide rebranding.

Cousins’ business has been built with the support of the Baby Boomer generation and future growth will depend on the support of millennials and Generation Z. Part of the company’s rebranding strategy involves the renovation of existing corporate locations, while franchisees are required to renovate their stores before they can renew their franchise agreement. If an existing franchisee elects not to renovate, their location can be purchased by other franchise owners or by Cousins corporate.

The company’s overall sales volume has continued to grow during the rebranding effort. The brand opened nine units in 2019 that feature its rebranding elements.

There are several challenges associated with this rebranding effort, the first being how Cousins will handle the increase in the number of guests who are using third-party delivery services like DoorDash and Uber Eats. To accommodate the increased amount of orders, Cousins found it does not need to increase staffing. Specht stated during our interview that Cousins needs to stay “nimble” when dealing with changing guest tastes and service requirements.

Another challenge the company faces is capitalizing on the growing use of its drive-thru at select locations. Many of its newer locations have a drive-thru, which puts additional stress on service and staffing. These locations are perceived as a legitimate part of the business and a priority. Proper staffing will determine who gets served first: the in-store guest, the drive-thru customer or the patron making an online order. Specht said if restaurants are not delivering the proper level of service, “our guests will tell us about it.”

The growing number of millennials who are served by Cousins is a major driver of the business, while it maintains a strong blue-collar base. Millennials desire healthier meals, faster delivery and community responsibility.

Cousins recently introduced “Sub in a Bowl” – a deli fresh and grilled-to-order sub served on top of mixed greens instead of between bread – to provide customers with a bread-free option.

Specht stressed how critical their “flavor profile” is. It needs to be maintained through the rebranding effort while ensuring the company is committed to meeting guests’ needs. Sub in a Bowl appeals to those who desire a lower carb meal and allows Cousins to offer a new product without increasing its SKUs.

To better serve its communities, Cousins Subs introduced its “Make It Better Foundation” in 2013. The foundation supports youth education, hunger and health and wellness. Since the inception of the foundation, it has donated nearly $507,000 in nonprofit grants and student scholarships.

Only time will tell if this rebranding strategy will be successful, but if Cousins Subs stays nimble and continues to offer high-quality product in a welcoming atmosphere, sales will likely continue to grow.

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Cary Silverstein
He was a senior professor at DeVry's Keller Graduate School in Wisconsin. Cary has published articles in periodicals and on the Internet. He recently published first book with Dr. Larry Waldman, "Overcoming Your NegotiaPhobia". Cary holds MBAs from L I U’s Arthur T. Roth School of Business. Cary has a BA from CUNY, Queens College. He has certificates in Negotiation from Harvard’s PON and in Labor and Employment Law from Marquette University.

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