Originally posted – April issue/2012

Building a Brand for Your Self-Service Laundry May Be the Smartest Business Move You Make All Year

Think only those big corporate types need to bother with such frivolous, esoteric topics are branding?

Think again.

Your brand says a lot about you and your business – and that’s as true for the single-store operator of a small self-service laundry located anywhere in Middle America as it is for the CEO of a multinational conglomerate based in Midtown Manhattan.

“Building a brand helps customers anticipate a specific experience,” said Louise Mann, who operates three Wash Day Laundry locations in and around Austin, Texas. “When they see your brand, they know what level of service to expect. I think branding is vital in order to establish credibility in your market. The main benefit of branding is to establish consistency and distinguish your business from your competitors. Customers like a predictable experience, as long as it is a good one!”

Bob Frandsen – who owns seven laundries (six in Minnesota and one in Wisconsin) – has, in many ways, let the equipment choice for his stores do much of his branding for him.

“All of the stores have the same name,” Frandsen explained. “We simply use ‘Maytag Coin Laundry,’ and the reason for that is because everybody knows Maytag. It’s almost like McDonald’s. Are you going to go to McDonald’s or Joe’s Hamburger Shack? You know exactly what you’re going to get at McDonald’s. It’s consistent.”

During the summer, Frandsen explained that his stores receive a good portion of the tourist trade, simply because the vacationers were familiar with his brand name.

“A lot of people think my stores are franchises,” he added.

And the more stores you own and operate, the greater the benefit of branding, according to Gary Gray of Fun Wash, Inc., based in Little Rock, Ark.

“We started branding Fun Wash when we purchased our third store,” Gray said. “We currently own 14 locations. With branding, our advertising dollars benefit a larger revenue base, which allows us to spend more total dollars. Also, as our customers move to other areas of our market, they are more likely to find a Fun Wash location near their new home.”

For Michael Finkelstein, who owns and operates a large number of self-service laundries in North Carolina and Virginia – many under the Laundry Land brand – it’s all about word of mouth.

“I want to identify a certain image – that my stores are the cleanest, nicest stores with good equipment that have friendly attendants,” Finkelstein said. “A clean, safe environment where you have equipment that works. That’s my mission statement, and that’s what I wanted to portray in my branding.

“So, when people go to the various towns I’m in, maybe because their kids are on a travel soccer team or they’re away for a weekend, and they want to get their clothes done, at least I have somewhat of a leg up on the competition. And, at the same time, if they were to reference the Laundry Land brand when going to these various towns, they can Google search me and I’m there. And they can see where my other locations are as well.”

Above all, branding builds trust with your customers through consistent service and quality.

“When I think of branding, I inevitably think of McDonald’s,” said Brian Brunckhorst, who operates four northern California locations under the Advantage Laundry name. “Why? Because no matter which store you go to, you will always get your food prepared the exact same way. It is consistent, and consistency matters. In branding, you give your customers a unique value; it could be your service, the quality of your machines, cleanliness or price. But whatever it is, you need to deliver it consistently.”

“The importance of branding in my mind is that it truly sends a message to your customers who you are and what your message is,” said Jeff Gardner, who owns Sel Dale Laundromat in St. Paul, Minn. “In the case of a coin laundry, the message should be: ‘We’re committed to your community, and we’re a part of it. We’re here for it.'”

Gardner has successfully built three separate brands within the industry – his former store, Rainbow Laundromat; his current store, Sel Dale; and his drop-off laundry business, The Laundry Doctor.

“I branded my original store with the name Rainbow Laundromat because it was in a heavily GLBT neighborhood,” Gardner said. “I wanted that neighborhood to know that this was their laundromat. I marketed it in their magazines, and I had a huge clientele that followed it. That’s how I built that business and made it very successful.

“It was an interesting process to brand that store and then watch how well that branding worked with customers who came in and how they reacted to everything, right down to the employees I hired to represent the company.”

By contrast, The Laundry Doctor brand was developed due to Gardner’s desire to position himself (and his drop-off laundry service) as a laundry expert.

“Most people don’t think coin laundry owners know a whole lot about professional garment care,” said Gardner, whose company vehicles include stethoscopes dangling from the rearview mirrors. “The ‘Doctor’ brand gave me that sense of authority – a self-proclaimed sense of authority; however, I had certainly done the research before I put it out there. I had been in the business for three years before I branded my full-service product as ‘The Laundry Doctor.’ It was an area of my business that was growing so much that I had to figure out what I could do to maximize it. That’s one of the first things I knew I needed to do – brand that part of the business.”

As for Gardner’s current store, Sel Dale, it is located at the corner of Selby Ave. and Dale St. “That was a brand I inherited with the store, and I’m trying to brand it to the community,” he said.

What’s in a Name?

Of all the brand building blocks, the company name is the key component. It sets up the tone and feel of the company and determines the initial conversation you will have with each and every customer you deal with – so make sure the name is distinctive.

“Ideally the name should speak to your company’s core value proposition, your competitive advantage and help to single you out from the masses,” said Phillip Davis, president of Tungsten Branding, a company naming expert that has branded more than 200 businesses, products and services worldwide. “Avoid trite, descriptive and overused language, and look for ways to tell your story from a fresh perspective. Aim for names that lend themselves to further discussion and a deeper conversation about your company.”

For example, Davis referenced Wholesale Landscape Supply, which has found its original company name descriptive but altogether forgettable. So, the company rebranded as Big Earth – a more fun, evocative name. And sales volume doubled the following year.

After deciding on a name, don’t forget about the tag line.

“If your company brand name is a ship, then the tag line is the rudder,” Davis said. “Instead of using it to tell what you do, employ the tag line to tell how you do it. From Apple’s ‘Think Different’ to Nike’s ‘Just Do It,’ great brands let customers know what separates them from the rest of the bunch.

“Don’t waste this valuable bit of marketing real estate by telling potential customer the obvious, or making a meaningless claim such as, ‘We are the third-largest manufacturer of widgets east of the Mississippi.’ Instead, let them know how they will benefit by buying from you.”

Next, you should consider a logo. And, in the case of company logos, less is more. Keep your designs simple, focused and to the point. Look to further reinforce your company’s core value by introducing one design element that highlights your key benefit.

“Refrain from adding multiple elements and colors in an attempt to get more for your design dollar.” Davis said. “It will only confuse clients and cost more to print. Make sure to reduce the logo down to business card size to see how it will print small. If you can’t make it out, start over and simplify.”

“Design a logo that is easily printed on smaller items, but also looks good on a large sign,” suggested Mann, who spent approximately $500 to have her business’ logo designed. “Have a tag line – ‘Austin’s Green Laundry,’ for example. Establish a relevant, easy-to-remember mission statement. Determine your message, and stick with it over and over. Customers choose a brand because they know what to expect.”

A Branded Web Presence

If you’ve come up with a great name, a compelling tag line and a memorable logo design, you are well on your way to creating a high-impact brand. But make sure you involve your web designer in the process so that you don’t just end up with the new company name and logo on top of a generic web page.

“If you have the brand style guide, share it with your web designer, so he or she will know which set of colors and which design elements to utilize,” Davis explained. “You can also ask the branding firm, graphic design company or logo designer you hire to create the initial homepage look and feel, and one interior page, as a template for adding future content; that way your site can grow and develop, yet still retain your brand image.”

And locking up your brand on the Internet is crucial, according to Gardner.

“I originally wanted ‘Laundry Doctor’ as my URL,” he noted. “But I couldn’t get it because somebody else had it. Since then, however, there is so much traffic and so much recognition for ‘The Laundry Doctor’ – even nationally.

“I just got a call from a woman in Pennsylvania wanting to know about bedbugs,” he added. “She searched laundry questions, and my brand comes up on international searches as an authority. It’s part of my brand. And my website has enough good content that the people who are going there are staying there and using it – and that creates more credibility for my brand.”

Of course, no brand would be complete these days without matching social media pages, according to Davis. The advent of Facebook, Twitter and Google+ has created new opportunities, as well as new challenges, for extending a laundry’s brand message. The goal here, again, is consistency of experience.

“Make sure each customer touch point communicates the overall look, feel and message that you have established for the brand,” Davis advised. “This is where logos get compromised, colors switched up, fonts changed – and the brand feel gets lost. Engage your designers to ensure their original intent is followed through to the very end. Customers will be pleasantly surprised and impressed to see that you’ve taken the time, energy and effort to create a consistent experience for them all across the web.”

Beyond the Logo

Choosing a name and creating a logo are the fun tasks. And in many ways, it’s the easiest part of branding your laundry – especially when compared to the day-to-day operation of a consistently branded store.

“Making a commitment to a brand isn’t a one-time event,” Gardner said. “It’s a lifetime event. Branding is something you do every day in your business.”

“We use all the same colors, all the same floor tile, all the same machines, and all the same folding tables,” Frandsen explained. “All of our stores are the exact same format, in that all of the machines accept tokens and quarters. In fact, we have three stores that are ‘cookie-cutter’ stores; if you’re standing on the inside of any of these three stores, you won’t know the difference from one to the next. They are identical.”

Following suit, Mann’s Wash Day Laundry stores all feature the same hours, services, interior colors and “in-store experience.”

“We want customers to recognize our logo and know that there will be a predictable experience when they chose our brand,” she said.

At Laundry Land locations, Finkelstein focuses heavily on the type of equipment in his stores.

“I try to have the same brands of equipment throughout the stores, but if I can’t do that, at least I present the same options – 20-pounders, 30-pounders, 80-pounders, whatever it may be. I make sure my customers have that choice.

“Location also is a big part of branding,” he added. “You want to make sure you have good locations that work for the areas that you’re in.”

“Our goal is to be the neighborhood coin laundry no-brainer,” Brunckhorst explained. “We want to be the obvious choice for anyone within our service market. For us, we have new machines; our stores are all the same color; we are attended; and we deliver consistent quality.”

It’s important to note that, even within a consistent and tightly branded laundry operation, there is still some wiggle room. For example, one of the three Wash Day Laundry locations is actually a “Wash Day Laundry Express,” due to the fact that it’s a coin-operated store rather than a card-operated laundry like the other two.

“We aren’t quite sure if we will stay with the Express model yet,” Mann admitted. “We need more time operating that store to decide. We created the signage so that it would be easy to remove the ‘Express’ if we decide there is no advantage to that branding model.”

For Finkelstein, who operates nearly 100 laundries, it’s not a given that every one of his store’s will receive the Laundry Land moniker.

“There are some stores I don’t brand,” he said. “And that’s only because, if I’m in a town with a total population of 453 people, I’m not going to be able to offer all of the amenities and services of a Laundry Land because the volume isn’t going to be there like it is for a store that services a main city.”

Before You Brand

As you think about the keys to creating a strongly branded presence in your marketplace, it’s crucial to consider all of the advantages and potential disadvantages of such a business model. One obvious drawback of branding might occur if a customer confuses your brand with some other laundry where he or she had a bad experience, according to Mann.

“That’s why it is important to set up Google alerts for your business name to be sure you keep an eye on any possible bad press,” she explained.

“Bad news at one branded location could affect all locations in a market area.” Gray noted.

“When you do something good, it’s good,” Finkelstein concurred. “And when you have an unfortunate experience, it could be very bad for the brand.”

For Brunckhorst, it all boils down to customer expectations created by your brand.

“If you fail to live up to those expectations, your entire brand can be negatively affected,” he said. “Although we strive for perfection, we sometimes miss the mark. In those instances, it is important that we do all we can to rectify the problem and make it right with the customer.”

Another branding issue to consider, according to Gardner, is a potential demographic shift in your marketplace.

“When you make that commitment to a community, if over time the community changes, which does happen with gentrification, for example, there is the possibility you can lose that identity if your brand is small.”

Also, when the time comes, selling a branded store poses some interesting (although not necessarily negative) challenges.

“In my opinion, you must sell branded stores as a group to one buyer,” Gray explained. “If you sell a single store, then you should remove your name within a few days of the sale closing.”

Mann added that it’s important to determine, during the early stages of developing your business, whether or not your brand is going to sell with your store – similar to franchise model – or if once you sell a store, the new owner will be required to re-establish his or her own brand.

“I suppose that depends on how you set up your business,” she said.

Another question that might arise is how much value is based on the actual location, versus the goodwill that has been built up in the brand over the years.

“The valuation of the business could be affected,” Brunckhorst said. “You will need to determine the amount of value in goodwill you place on your brand, as opposed to the location itself.

“However, if you are selling the entire brand of stores, I think that would increase the value of the business and make selling easier – providing, of course, that the brand is well known and respected.

Frandsen sees his brand as an incentive that will attract potential buyers.

“When the day comes that I want to sell all of my stores, the value is going to be greater because they’re all branded and they’re all cookie cutter,” he said. “I can sell my stores as a package deal to some investor easier than I could sell a hodgepodge of stores with all different names, layouts and equipment.”

“A benefit of building a brand is that eventually it can have more value to someone if it’s got a good reputation and you build it well,” Gardner agreed. “If you’re going to sell the business, it will add value to the sale price. Of course, it depends on how seriously you’ve treated your brand.”

A Brand of One

Whether referring to basketball shoes, fast-food restaurants or laundromats, the initial tendency may be to view a “brand” as something involving a mass quantity – and certainly much more than a single entity.

However, as Gardner has proven with his Minnesota stores, a brand of one can be just as relevant and profitable.

“I recently bought a single laundry in Portsmouth, Va.,” Finkelstein explained. “And this owner had a really strong brand; it means something in her community, and she developed it. As a result, I’ve kept that name.

“She branded it as ‘Mama’s,’ and it means something to that town, so I left it. I could have made it a Laundry Land because it offers everything a Laundry Land store offers. There’s no difference. The only difference is that her sign means something to those customers.”

You don’t need to be a national chain to take advantage of the benefits of branding, according to Brunckhorst, who reminds us that the laundry business is still a “neighborhood business” and that branding for your particular market can make your store the clear choice and give you an edge over your competitors.

“Branding isn’t specific to national businesses,” Gardner stated. “Of course, they have an opportunity to do it better, because they have larger staffs and more dollars to do it with. But take a look at any successful small business, and the first thing the owner has done well is to brand that business – whether it’s a small coffee shop or the neighborhood hardware store.”

Or the local laundromat.

[To learn about trademarking your brand name and image, visit PlanetLaundry.com.]

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