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May 22, 2024

Blending the right mix of local marketing tools for franchisees

with Dan Sokolik
VP of Marketing at Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken

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Summary

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with the challenge of getting your local marketing to connect with new audiences and engage your community, then you are not alone! In this episode of the Local Marketing Lab, Dan Sokolik, VP of Marketing at Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken, shares his diverse experience working with major QSR brands like Subway, Domino’s, and McDonald’s. With a background spanning the agency, corporate, and franchise sides, Dan offers a unique perspective on blending the right local marketing tools for franchisees and multi-unit operators.

Catering to franchisees’ needs and capabilities. Dan emphasizes the importance of providing franchisees with the right local marketing infrastructure and toolset to drive growth. From direct mail to paid social and mobile apps, he discusses empowering operators with tactics tailored to their audience’s demographics and market dynamics.

Overcoming challenges with legacy systems. Revitalizing an established brand like Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken presents hurdles in getting veteran franchisees to adopt new digital marketing strategies. Dan shares insights on navigating this transition and aligning efforts to meet franchisees where they are in their marketing maturity.

Hyper-local marketing for diverse markets. With locations ranging from major metros to rural towns, Dan dives into customizing local marketing approaches for different community mindsets. He explores creative ways to drive engagement, like user-generated content and cause marketing, while respecting each market’s unique nuances.

Key Takeaways

Here are some topics discussed in the episode around local marketing tools for franchisees:

  • The role of direct mail, paid social, apps, and loyalty in a local marketing mix
  • Building the right local marketing tools and partnerships for franchisee success
  • Leveraging user-generated content and cause marketing for engagement
  • Effective local marketing approaches for brands in rural/small-town markets
  • Challenges of getting buy-in for digital marketing from veteran franchisees

It’s all about building that infrastructure to support that future growth, right? Making sure that we’ve got the right partners, that we’re working with the right tools in the toolbox for our current operators and all of our future operators to be able to go out and tackle things in the local level.

DAN SOKOLIK
Lee's Famous Recipe Chicken: Local Marketing Tools for Franchisees

Resources

Other shout-outs

  • Kim Freer — CMO at Raising Canes, great example of grassroots and local marketing.
  • Firehouse Subs — Being engaged in their communities and local neighborhoods.

Transcript

Justin Ulrich
What’s up everyone, and welcome to the Local Marketing Lab, where you get real-world insights from industry pros to help you drive local revenue and local for growth. This podcast is brought to you by Evocalize – digital marketing tools powered by local data that automatically work where and when your locations need it most. Learn more at evocalize.com

What’s up? And welcome to the local marketing lab. Joining us in the lab today is a guest with nearly 25 years of marketing experience working with brands like Subway, Domino’s and McDonald’s. He grew up in a small town of just 700 people, is a huge baseball fan, and is a VP of Marketing at Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken, Dan Sokolik. Thanks for joining us in the lab, my friend.

Dan Sokolik
Hey, happy to be here.

Justin Ulrich
Awesome. Yeah, we met a few months ago. We’ve been to a couple of events where we’ve hung out and just kind of hit it off. And I got to learn a little bit about your background in the process and thought, man, you’d be a great guest to have on the show. 

What I really like about your background is that it’s really interesting relative to many of the guests that have had on before, because you’ve had experience working both on the agency side as well as the corporate side, and then even have some experience on the franchise side. 

So from a local marketing perspective, it feels like a good story that you’ll be able to tell to kind of pull everything together. But I guess to kick things off, why don’t you just tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey and what got you to the position that you’re in now?

Dan Sokolik
Yeah, so, I mean, you hit the nail on the head. I think that’s what makes my path a little different, is that I’ve sat in kind of all those seats at the table, right? And everybody in those different roles has different priorities, thinks about things, views problems in a different way. 

And so it’s really been helpful to me throughout my journey to have that understanding and be able to maybe proactively think about what a response might be from somebody in one of the other seats that I might have sat in previously, right?

So I got my start in this crazy QSR world working for a very large Domino’s Pizza franchisee here in St. Louis. When I started working with him, we were at about 35 stores. When I left him five years later, we were up to 65, and I think he’s over 100 locations currently. But that was, you know, that was all about local store marketing in that role. 

Now, granted, this was, you know, pre-digital revolution. So direct mail was a big, big piece of what we did, especially in the pizza world. But, you know, providing tools to our restaurant managers to get out and do grassroots marketing was a big, big piece of that, too. But so did that for about five years. It was really eye-opening to me having that be my entry point into this QSR world to see all the opportunities that were out there where a career could take you. 

And, you know, it was the kind of role I could have stayed in for a long, long time. But, you know, franchisees being franchisees, you know, growth opportunity wasn’t huge for me there. So I knew to get where I wanted to go, I needed to get some agency experiences. And an opportunity to work on the McDonald’s brand managing some local market ad funds popped up. So I did that for their largest field agency at the time. 

Had five markets that I managed and again, you know, different working with, you know, their co-op funds and managing their local markets spend, local market promotion, management, etc. there. Did that for a couple years. Agency life is tough. But then I got the opportunity to go to work for Subway in a corporate field marketing role, and I had long run with Subway. I was there for about ten years. 

It’s no secret that Subway went through some troubles and some massive overhaul five or so years ago, and they eliminated the field marketing team. I was able to latch on with one of Subway’s local market ad agencies. So back in the agency world again. Did that for a bit. And Subway rolled up their, kind of pulled the plug on local ad spend, rolled all their dollars up national. It’s kind of like getting kicked in the gut by the same company twice there. 

But, you know, all good stories have good endings, right? So jumped from that, stayed in the agency world, started working for an agency managing the account for Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken. I did that for a short time before the CEO asked me to kind of switch seats at the table and come on the corporate side and lead efforts for him. So that’s where I’m at today with this incredibly fascinating brand of Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken.

Justin Ulrich
What is it about Lee’s that kind of sets it apart from the other chicken brands? Like, little background, little story on Lee’s would help.

Dan Sokolik
Yeah. So it’s funny, I tell people that it feels like working for this old, stale legacy brand, but also this exciting, energized startup company, both at the same time. Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken has been around since 1966. It was started by a fella named Lee Cummings, who happened to be the nephew of Colonel Harlan Sanders. 

And Lee worked with the colonel on a brand that we won’t mention, but that everybody knows. Worked with him for a long time before the colonel decided to sell the company. And Lee set his own course and started his own brand. So a lot of people don’t know who the Lee in the Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken is. And so that’s part of this really cool story we have to tell with the brand. 

But the brand has had some crazy highs and crazy lows and it’s been passed around a lot of different ownership groups over the years. But a couple years ago, private investment group bought the company. That’s who I’m working for today. And with the goal of really trying to re-energize and bring this brand back to life. We’re at 130 units today with some pretty aggressive growth plans over the next five to seven years. 

And, you know, we’ve recently gone through a rebranding effort to try to modernize the, you know, the visual identity of the brand. We’re working on new restaurant design, new restaurant prototype for all the growth that we anticipate to come. So our restaurant, and as part of that, you know, remodeling, refreshing our existing locations. So just an incredibly exciting time to be with this brand.

Justin Ulrich
Very cool. With this aggressive growth plan that you guys have, you’re obviously going to have to put some attention and love towards your local marketing plan. So what do you think of the things that maybe you might put some attention towards or that you think might really move the needle from a local marketing perspective?

Dan Sokolik
Yeah. To that end, it’s all about building that infrastructure to support that future growth, right? Making sure that we’ve got the right partners, that we’re working with the right tools in the toolbox for our current operators and all of our future operators to be able to go out and tackle things in the local level.

Justin Ulrich
For sure. Have you seen any tactics that you’ve tried lately or maybe some of your markets have, have tested that you found have worked really well?

Dan Sokolik
Yeah, you know, it’s funny and it goes back to my pizza days, but, you know, shared mail coupons still work, especially for, you know, our, I don’t want to say our target demographic, but our current, you know, core demographic is an older audience and they still clip coupons, they still check their mailbox every week. And that tactic is one that still works very, very well for us.

Justin Ulrich
Yeah, it’s tried and true. So you have your core segment there that you have, you know, success with. What about maybe new audiences that you go after? Have you placed, you know, any of your focus on just digital channels, social media channels?

Dan Sokolik
For sure. Yeah. I mean, you know, with as small as we are and the limited budgets we have to work with, paid social is what we do from a brand level just to support our operators. 

So that’s a big piece as well as, you know, we just introduced a new mobile app and loyalty program earlier this year that’s part of this whole big refresh. We had an app before and we had a loyalty program, but they were about as stale as some of our old restaurants looked. And so we’re still in the infancy with our new program, but there’s a lot of places we could take that, a lot of cool things that we’re going to be able to do with that as well.

Justin Ulrich
Yeah, very cool. What is your take? I’m curious on, you know, you talk about empowering your locations with tools and capabilities to do marketing on their own. But what’s your take on allowing them to leverage user-generated content or just become the brand?

Dan Sokolik
Yeah, it’s funny, we’ve got a handful of operators that dive right into that. Most of them, quite frankly, don’t either understand it or want to take the time to execute. So it’s a challenge for us in terms of how much resources or effort do we put towards something that’s only going to help a few and maybe not the majority. So we try to do as much of that as we can for them. 

Again, this is a legacy brand. It’s been around for a long time. It’s not a startup. In a perfect startup situation, I don’t know if I would operate local social channels, but because a lot of our guys already had them, we’ve kind of tried to bring them in under the umbrella and do the best we can to give them some resources and tools to support. 

You know, you mentioned user-generated content. One of the cool things we’re doing is we’re working with an organization called GiftAMeal, which has really become our primary charitable effort. The way GiftAMeal works is our customers are able to take a photo on their mobile devices, share it through the GiftAMeal platform, and for every photo that gets shared, a meal gets donated to a local food bank. 

And they’re able to pinpoint and allocate those donations to the food banks in our specific trade areas. So it’s not going to some national group to be divvied out. It is literally going into our local markets, it’s a really cool thing. It gives us, instead of working with the dozens or more of local food banks individually, we’re able to have a unified message that we can get out there from a brand standpoint, but it does impact and effect in those local markets. So that’s a really cool thing. 

And the great feature of it is we get all that user-generated content, we get those great photos of our food that our customers are sharing with us that we can turn around then and use on social.

Justin Ulrich
Yeah, that’s perfect. Yeah. It is an interesting challenge to think about when you have a legacy brand with operators that have been operating their locations for years. It’s a shift and a change to really get them to adopt new forms of technology, new ways to communicate with audiences, especially when they become a little more comfortable with their core segment, their core audience. 

Bringing in new young audiences requires engagement on social. And the cool thing about it is it’s relatively cheap. It’s one of those things. We live in a time right now where if you want to engage with your local community, the cheapest, most effective way to do that is going to be through organic social media. You get out of it what you put into it. 

So if you actually put forth a lot of effort, generating content, going around to the community, engaging with others, you know, highlighting different heroes in your community, sharing their stories, you eventually, you know, create this kind of momentum and groundswell through your social channels within your community. And it’s a fantastic tool that we’ve never had access to in the past.

Dan Sokolik
Yeah, there’s no doubt. But like you mentioned, you know, I talked about the demographics, the aging demographics of our core customer being a legacy brand, especially being in the category that we’re in. But, you know, those same demographics apply to our operators. Right. So it’s a, it’s more of a. I’m fortunate that in a lot of instances, we have some second generation operators, you know, starting to get involved in their parents business. 

And those folks, you know, they’re on social themselves and they see the importance of it, and maybe they can either convince their parents or maybe they could take the reins themselves. We’ve had that in some instances. But, yeah, it’s a challenge to get folks that have been running these fried chicken joints for, you know, 40 plus years to learn about new technology or understand the importance of it. 

The additional challenge that I’ve got is a lot of our restaurants, the bulk of our restaurants are in small to mid sized communities. They’re not in major metros. And so you mentioned, I grew up in a town of 700 people. I know what small town life is like. 

Now, granted, we don’t have any fried chicken restaurants in towns of 700, but still, things move a little bit slower. People aren’t quite as tech-engaged in more rural communities. Doesn’t mean the younger generation isn’t. They certainly are, but it just has a little less importance to people there. So that’s a challenge that we have in trying to get people motivated to do more.

Justin Ulrich
Yeah, well, I mean, that’s marketing at its core. Right. Understanding your audience and knowing what to say to them and where to say it. So if your audience isn’t it on these channels, then you have to find other ways to do so, you know, whether it’s to different community events or whatever it might be.

Dan Sokolik
Yeah. Now that said, like, doesn’t mean the people in those communities aren’t. It’s just that combination of, you know, folks that have been doing this for a long time and haven’t seen that shift, maybe personally themselves, and then also maybe that just, it’s a little more under the surface in those areas than it is in the major metros where everybody’s on tech all the time.

Justin Ulrich
Yeah, for sure. What are some, like, if you had a brand out there that you think is doing, like, some really interesting, really cool, really engaging things, maybe on social or whatever channel, like, who would you want to give a shout out to?

Dan Sokolik
Yeah, you know, I’ve got a good friend, Kim Freer, who just stepped into the CMO role at Raising Canes, and she has inherited a really great local marketing infrastructure there at Raising Canes. I’ve always been a fan of what they do, both from a social aspect and also just from a boots on the ground, grassroots marketing standpoint. They’ve, from their early days, have invested in having the human capital it takes to execute at the local level. So that’s been a brand that I always keep my eyes on. 

And then I’ve got several friends on the Firehouse Subs team, and I’ve always been impressed with their level of community engagement. You know, when you walk into a Firehouse and you see those, those localized murals on the wall, you know right away that they’re, you know, engaged in their communities and that they care about their local neighborhoods, and I think that spills through in their social channels as well.

Justin Ulrich
Yeah, those are both great, great examples. And shout out to you for calling out someone in the same category. I mean, not everybody does that, but it’s true. Like, as a marketer, you know, it’s very rare when you do something brand new. Right. A lot of it’s about seeing what’s out there and being inspired to take that and take it to the next level. So when you have brands that are in the same category that you emulate, like, that’s just more motivation, inspiration to help you kind of.

Dan Sokolik
I would say we’re only really partially in the same category because they have a very, very limited menu and we have a much more broad offering base. But, yeah, we both sell chicken.

Justin Ulrich
Yeah.

Dan Sokolik
Who doesn’t sell chicken these days, right?

Justin Ulrich
Yeah exactly. Just to switch gears a little bit. Dan, you come from a small town, and you said you’re a big baseball fan, and, you know, I was instantly, I went to, like, you know, if you build it, they will come. The field of dreams and stuff. And I thought, how cool it would be to actually show you as an actual baseball player, knowing that you’re a big St. Louis Cardinal fan, tried to pull this one together here. The mound with a little bit of mullet.

Dan Sokolik
I love it. I love it. I was never a pitcher, but it would have been cool if I was.

Justin Ulrich
Very cool. Well, hey, it was a ton of fun having you in the lab here. Before we get going, like, why don’t you tell listeners how to follow you, how to follow your brand.

Dan Sokolik
Yeah, you can find me on LinkedIn. And really, that’s the best place for industry folks to follow what’s going on with our brand as well. Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken on LinkedIn. A lot of cool things happen for us. Some new development deals in the works, you know, looking to continue this evolution of both remodeling and building new ground up restaurants with this new look and feel. 

You say if we build it, if you build it, they will come. That’s the approach we’re taking with really trying to clean up our physical plants as well. Yeah. Keep an eye out for what we’re doing.

Justin Ulrich
Very cool. Yeah. So that does it for today. Follow. Subscribe to Dan to Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken on social. Stop in, grab some chicken. You know, it’s been around for a while. It’s award-winning. I’ve seen it on the site. So check it out. Dan, this was awesome. Thanks again for joining us in the lab, my friend.

Dan Sokolik
You got it. Thank you.

Justin Ulrich
You bet.

As always, thanks for joining us in the Local Marketing Lab. This podcast was sponsored by Evocalize. To learn more about how Evocalize can help you grow your business, visit evocalize.com

If you learned something from today’s episode, don’t forget to subscribe on your favorite podcast platform and follow us on LinkedIn and Facebook @Evocalize. That’s Evocalize and on X at Evocalize. 

And remember, keep innovating and testing new things. You’ll never know what connects with your customers best unless you try. Until next time. Thanks for listening.

Dan Sokolik headshot image

Dan Sokolik

VP of Marketing at Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken

Meet Dan Sokolik

With almost 25 years of marketing experience under his belt, Dan Sokolik has collaborated with major brands such as Subway, Domino’s, and McDonald’s. Hailing from a small town of only 700 residents, Dan’s roots have instilled in him a profound appreciation for the significance of local marketing.

Currently holding the role of VP of Marketing at Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken, Dan’s diverse background, encompassing agency, corporate, and franchise positions, equips him with a rich tapestry of insights that promise to benefit small restaurant owners and marketers seeking to elevate their local marketing game.

Host of the Local Marketing Lab podcast, Justin Ulrich - Headshot

Justin Ulrich

VP of Marketing at Evocalize

Meet the host

Justin is a seasoned marketing leader known for his creative expertise and innovative go-to-market strategies. With vast experience spanning both B2B and B2C landscapes, Justin has made his mark across a spectrum of industries including software, POS, restaurant, real estate, franchise, home services, telecom, and more.

Justin’s career is steeped in transformative strategies and impactful initiatives. With specialties ranging from channel marketing and brand management to demand generation, his strategic vision and execution have consistently translated into tangible results.


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