Shawnon Bellah, chief operations officer for Nestle Toll House Café, Bryon Stephens, chief operations officer and president of Marco’s Pizza, and Nader Masadeh, president and chief executive officer of Buffalo Wings & Rings, all agree that baring the inner-workings of their brand to millions of viewers on “Undercover Boss” was a risky move. They also agree that it was easily one of the most rewarding risks they’ve ever partaken in.
During FranConnection 2016, Bellah, Masadeh, Stephens and Nick Powills, chief brand strategist for 1851 Franchise, discussed the priceless insight that comes from participating in the hit CBS series “Undercover Boss.” For each of the panelists, the show served as an incredible PR tool to boost brand awareness on a nationwide level.
“Brand awareness was a big factor in participating in this show. It’s essentially a 42 minute commercial that would expose your brand on a public scale,” Masadeh said. “There’s a bit of confusion with our brand and other leaders in the industry. So we wanted to show what differentiates ourselves from the competition—we’re not Buffalo Wild Wings.”
For Masadeh, appearing on “Undercover Boss” really did boost brand awareness. The day the show aired, Buffalo Wings & Rings’ website had more than 50,000 hits—on an average day, they usually get 1,000. Masadeh also explained that they received more than 500 franchise leads from the show, and, because the show piqued a lot of viewers’ curiosity, the brand’s in-store sales saw an increase, too.
But beyond brand awareness, the panelists also agreed that “Undercover Boss” served as an unfettered opportunity to be on the frontlines of their business—allowing them a glimpse into how their locations really operate on a day-to-day basis.
“We were growing so quickly, nearly doubling in size every two years. When you grow that fast, it’s easy to lose track of how you’re represented in the marketplace. I didn’t know what was cascading down in the field, and what parts of our brand were being delivered to customers,” Stephens said, who has been the 700-unit-strong brand since 2006. “This gave me an unrestrained opportunity to go out and see how our company’s culture was being interpreted and being distilled from our franchisees and employees down to our customers.”
Of course, gathering such candid insight comes with its risks. The producers behind “Undercover Boss” go through a thorough vetting process to decide which locations and which employees they want featured on the show. This means they scour every single location in a brand’s system to hunt down people and situations that they knew could stir a reaction and create conflict. Masadeh, Stephens and Bellah would find out five minutes prior to filming who they’d actually be meeting with. Before filming the show, the producers also deprive these executives of sleep and food to get emotions up on camera.
“Most people will tell you their uncomfortable with the idea of a camera crew coming in and asking to investigate your location for the entire world to see. There’s a risk that comes with exposing your brand in this way—you’re afraid of what you might see,” Powills said. “But if you can approach this situation thoughtfully, there’s a huge upside—it results in great awareness that could spark growth in your brand.”
For Bellah, this meant coming to the realization that she needed to change her management style.
“Watching the debut of this show was a little unnerving—this was the first time I would be watching the final cut, and it would be in unison with millions of other viewers. Ultimately what I walked away with was this humbling realization that I’m a human, too. I get emotional. I get upset. And I have a tendency to push myself and my family way too hard. I have teenagers and I treat them like I would treat my franchisees—I expect a lot out of them,” Bellah said. “This experience forced me to take a step back, and to learn how to be more approachable and patient. You don’t realize the impact you have on employees until you’re standing there face to face. They taught me how to be more personal and to take a moment to really learn where our employees are coming from.”
For Stephens, the experience showed him that his brand needed to do a better job at recognizing and rewarding the employees that work hard to make Marco’s Pizza so great.
“I was completely blown away to see such passion and dedication from our employees operating our stores every single day. So I realized we needed to do something about making sure our best employees would want to stay with our brand and grow with us,” Stephens said. “I started as a dishwasher at a Holiday Inn, and eventually worked my way up the industry. I’ve come to love this industry, and I want to be able to pay it forward. I realized that it’s so important to give people the chance to create the lifestyle that they dream of. We are creating the American dream over and over again for a lot of people. Give them the tools to make it possible.”