On summer days in my early teens, my friend Erika and I would take off on our bikes and be out all day.
We would buy a sandwich and drink at the deli and picnic along on the town’s bike path. Afterward we’d pedal to the park at the end of the path and circle the pond a few times or hang out on the swings.
When the park lost its allure, we’d ride across town to Friendly’s for an ice cream cone. Fortified and cooled from our snack, we’d return home.
As a kid, I loved going to Friendly’s. It was a treat my family enjoyed and could afford.
One dreary February night during my freshman year at college, several dorm mates and I walked two miles along snow-piled streets in freezing temperatures to Friendly’s and had large sundaes for dinner. It lifted our spirits and freed us from the tyranny of the campus dining center for one night.
Do you have fond memories of Friendly’s too?
Now let me ask you, when was the last time you ate there?
After college, my feelings toward Friendly’s began to change. Stopping there on occasion while traveling, I found the restaurants dirty, dilapidated, and devoid of good service.
So my feelings toward Friendly’s are divided into the fondness I felt as a child and the distaste I experienced as an adult. I’ve been there perhaps twice in the past 20 years.
And I am not alone.
Many people have nostalgic memories of the brand, but wouldn’t consider dining there now.
That has taken its toll on the brand’s business.
Friendly’s situation went from bad to worse after private investment firm Sun Capital Partners purchased it in 2007 for $337.2 million.
- Sun Capital cut costs to boost profits by shrinking portion sizes and substituting cheaper ingredients.
- Management’s efforts to invest in revitalizing the brand were stifled. Since 2007, Friendly’s has had five CEOs and four Chief Marketing Officers.
- Friendly’s filed for bankruptcy in October 2011. As the major creditor and only bidder for its assets, Sun Capital bought the firm back for $122.6 million.
- In August 2012, Friendly’s rated last among 26 family restaurants in a Consumer Reports’ survey, and finished second-to-last among all 102 restaurants rated. Fueling these ratings were low scores for value, mood, service and cleanliness.
- Friendly’s has shrunk from 515 restaurants to 361 under Sun Capital’s ownership.
Friendly’s newest CEO John Maguire faces a daunting task.
Maguire has improved product quality by mandating real ice cream in Fribbles (instead of soft serve), fresh hamburger patties instead of frozen and haddock instead of pollock for the Fishamajig sandwich.
Employees received training to focus on faster service and cleanliness and had to reapply for their jobs. Soda fountain workers have been renamed “scoopologists” and servers are called “memory-makers.”
Management has begun refreshing the restaurants, with 10 restaurants redone to date and another 30 scheduled for this year.
The Disney-esque job titles notwithstanding, all the moves above qualify as cost of entry in the competitive family/casual dining categories.
But Friendly’s still hasn’t answered the big questions: Who is Friendly’s trying to target and what is unique that only Friendly’s offers?
In one article Maguire says he hopes to attract 25-49 year olds and in another he says “it really is all about families.”
Meanwhile the new restaurant look is retro, invoking Friendly’s heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. Music piped over the sound system includes big bands and current crooners who have a 1940s-ish sound like Michael Bublé.
So the talk is targeting families or 25-49 year olds, but the décor screams seniors to me.
This is brand tinkering where surgery is needed.
Friendly’s is at a cross roads and is fighting for its life. It has fallen out of relevance for many consumers and needs to figure out how to become relevant for them again. Not unlike the situation Dunkin’ Donuts faced in the 1990s.
Nostalgia for the doughnut would not have saved Dunkin’ in the face of health trends and competition. And nostalgia won’t save Friendly’s.
What can you learn from Friendly’s experience to keep your brand in good stead?
- Get crystal clear on who your target customer is. You may have more than one customer segment, but trying to appeal to everyone renders you generic. Pick a primary target and focus on them.
- Determine the unique role you are going to play in your target customer’s life. This is emotion and benefits driven. For example, Dunkin’ is where people go to fortify and recharge themselves. Hence “America Runs on Dunkin’.”
- Have a vision of how you are going to WOW customers with your role.
- Involve your key constituencies in developing and executing your vision. In addition to target customers, Friendly’s should be involving their franchisees. Existing franchisees may be able to offer a helpful front-line perspective. And to grow, Friendly’s needs to think: what would make a prospective franchisee take the plunge?
To re-invent the brand, Friendly’s can’t just promise to make memories by naming their servers “memory-makers.” They need to ask themselves what is going to make their target customer ride her bike across town on a sweltering summer day or walk two miles in freezing temperatures to get there?