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The Franchise Infinite Game: Building Your Brand for Long-Term Resiliency

Man playing chess

In January of 1968, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive in a series of surprise attacks against South Vietnamese and American forces all throughout Vietnam. The defending coalition forces would go on to win every single battle, inflicting heavy casualties on the North Vietnamese with fewer losses of their own.

But why is it that the United States and South Vietnam would go on to lose the war even though they won a majority of the battles?

Marketing guru Simon Sinek explored the war and the concept of finite and infinite games in his IFA 2020 keynote. The many lessons of his book The Infinite Game are especially relevant for franchise executives looking to chart a path forward amidst immense pandemic turbulence.

Finite games, like sports matches or chess, have set parameters where the players are known, rules are fixed, and an agreed-upon objective exists where there are often winners and losers.

Infinite games have both known and unknown players, no exact (and sometimes changing) rules, and an objective of simply lasting or staying in the game.

Problems arise when business leaders play the infinite game with a finite mindset. Quarterly goals and arbitrary targets take precedence over a company’s overall well-being and longevity, leading to a decline in innovation, trust, and cooperation.

I interviewed Shana Krisan, VP of Marketing at Goldfish Swim School, and Ashley Schuetz, VP of Marketing at Massage Heights, for their thoughts on succeeding in the infinite game of business as a franchise leader.

#1 Just Cause

Kenny: Simon mentioned that the first thing a business needs to thrive in an infinite game is a “Just Cause,” an ideal that isn’t just quarterly profits or a larger market share, but something that’s service-oriented, resilient, inclusive, and bigger than themselves.

This fits perfectly with the franchising framework because franchise brands are, if anything, a story or cause that’s bigger than their founders or executives—they encompass hundreds of partner franchisees and thousands of employees.

What is your brand’s “Just Cause,” and how do you promote it both internally and externally?

Shana: Being a true industry leader and innovator in the infinite game requires your business to go above and beyond simply serving the customer. It’s more than just identifying a need and providing a product or service. It means finding the overarching reason as to why and how brands can dig deeper to help a cause much bigger than what we’re selling. It requires taking social ownership of an issue, rooted in passion, to initiate change.

At Goldfish Swim School, our mission is to make children safer in and around the water by providing the skills and knowledge to combat the staggering epidemic of fatalities caused by drowning—the number one cause of injury-related death for children ages 1 to 4. This devastating reality, which takes the lives of three children in the United States every day, is at the core of Goldfish Swim School’s purpose.

We promote our just cause both internally and externally through a variety of ways, including our charitable partnership with the USA Swimming Foundation, our membership with the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, marketing campaigns executed at the local level, special events, member newsletters, franchise system update calls celebrating wins and accomplishments and sharing best practices, and much more!

Bottom line: Our purpose is promoted in everything we do, as it guides our vision. It is a leader’s job to help create, foster, and encourage a purpose-driven culture people want to be a part of.

Ashley: I’m lucky enough to work for a brand that has a higher purpose embedded within everything we do as a company. Our “just cause” is to elevate the lives of the people we touch—that is inclusive of our members and guests, team members at every location, and all franchise owners. The services we provide truly help people live better lives and the franchise model allows entrepreneurs to fulfill their dreams while minimizing risk and increasing the odds of succeeding.

We promote our “just cause” by continually communicating our “why” as a brand, both internally and externally. Our consumer-facing marketing messages need to speak to the narrative of massage services helping people live and feel better. Our internal communication to the franchise system constantly infuses our purpose as a brand—within our webinars, newsletters, and even our KPIs, we speak about “elevating lives” in a positive way and helping others.

Additionally, our entire franchise support team at corporate understands our goal of helping our franchise owners succeed, which in turn helps put team members to work and then results in healthier, happier consumers nationwide!

#2 Trusting Team

Kenny: The second suggestion from Simon was for organizations to build trusting teams, which requires creating environments where people can be themselves, work without fear of being punished for mistakes, and feel like their bosses want them to succeed.

Specifically for the franchising industry, how do you build and communicate trust with your network of franchise owners who are partners rather than employees?

Ashley: Collaboration.

That’s a small word but a large task. We work hard as a brand to involve our franchise owners in many projects and decisions by leveraging franchise advisory councils, sub-committees and other franchise owners throughout the system.

Franchising is not easy, but if you leverage the brainpower of everyone within your community, you can create some great outcomes.

Shana: We make sure we put team culture at the center of everything we do!

Integrity, compassion, and trust for our team members, our more than 100 franchise locations, and our members have contributed to the success of Goldfish Swim School Franchising. We want to make sure the people we hire are the right people in the right seats, and that they have a passion and a dedication to our vision and mission, as well as to our teams and the support we provide our franchisees. We hire the best...and once we do, we trust them, value them, encourage them, and try to inspire them to produce high-quality work to support our system and grow our brand.

This passion for people has built a culture of transparency that creates a strong sense of accountability among teams. Every quarter, we host a “State of the Company” where our CEO shares the strategic plan, obstacles/challenges, and both short- and long-term goals; communicating details, bringing clarity to company performance and reiterating our strategy. This message brings to light the “why” behind the work, a shared team direction, and allows everyone to move fast and focus on what really matters. Being open and honest builds this team-centric culture, where our people are more invested in their work, understand the value of their roles, have higher morale, and feel they are trusted members of the team.

#3 Worthy Rival

Kenny: The distinction between a competitor and a worthy rival is that the former is often someone we just want to beat whereas the latter is someone who inspires us to be better. Competitors focus our attention on outcomes while worthy rivals focus our attention on the journey.

The two parties don’t have to be mutually exclusive—they can often overlap or even be the same party with a simple change in perspective.

Have you had a worthy rival, either a brand or an individual professional, who’s spurred you to improve and be better?

Ashley: When Simon delivered this message during his keynote, I turned to a colleague next to me and announced my worthy rival! I’m grateful to work with people who challenge me daily because the result of that is growth.

Everyone can learn from their competitors in a healthy way, but having individuals that you can surround yourself with who push you to be your best is something special. The franchise industry is full of talented people we can learn from and be inspired by as our “worthy rival.”

#4 Existential Flexibility

Kenny: Being existentially flexible means being willing to pivot strategically for the sake of your company’s well-being and longevity, even if it comes at a great short-term cost. Simon gave some great examples of brands that weren’t willing to be existentially flexible and, consequently, went bankrupt or now cease to exist. Think about Kodak or Blockbuster and where they are today.

Have you ever had to flex existentially as a company? Or have you learned from any cautionary tales of a brand not being willing to flex?

Ashley: Every industry evolves and has disruptors that enter the market from time to time. There have been years where a potential disruptor entered and we have had to react to it, but we try our best to stay ahead of industry trends and demands so we can leverage a more proactive strategy as opposed to reactive.

Whether it is through industry research or our own internal surveying and leadership vision, we want to provide the very best experience for our guests, and oftentimes that means being flexible or evolving to meet those needs. The important element is to never forget your “why” or deviate from your purpose as a brand.

#5 Courage to Lead

Kenny: Simon’s last point involves having the courage to lead—to have the guts and backbone to choose people over profit, a long-term vision over the status quo, or the willingness to own up to mistakes.

Are there leaders in franchising you admire who have demonstrated the courage to lead?

Shana: Many come to mind, and they all share similar characteristics. The leaders I admire are the ones who have the courage to do the right things for the people and the mission of the company and understand the importance that courage and people play in the big picture and for the long term.

To be a visionary leader, you have to take calculated risks and you’re going to make mistakes along the way. It is how you take accountability, learn from those mistakes, and adjust for the good of the business that ultimately earns you the respect and loyalty of your team and propels the business forward.

Ashley: Throughout my career in franchising, I’ve been blessed to meet many great leaders that have positively impacted my outlook on leadership. The amazing people in this industry is what has made me fall in love with franchising.

It all started with the co-founder and president of my company, Shane Evans. Massage Heights is a family-owned business that was founded by Shane and her husband, Wayne. In the eight years that I’ve been with the company, I’ve seen Shane take on the leadership role and drive the brand to what it is today.

It is inspiring to see a female leader in this industry and I have immense respect for what she has accomplished and what she will continue to do—I’m lucky to be a part of the journey she is creating.

Kenny: Thank you so much, Ashley and Shana, for your authenticity and deep insights on how to not just survive, but thrive in the long game! Your responses are truly reflective of what it takes to be a visionary and leader and to build a brand that will be resilient and capable of weathering any storm.