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How Firehouse Subs capitalized on bloggers and 6 ways you can, too

By Paul R. Witkowski

FireHouse-SubsInvite local bloggers to build awareness locally for your national brand

Firehouse Subs is one of America’s leading fast, casual sandwich franchise restaurants. Brothers Chris and Robin Sorensen founded Firehouse Subs in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1994, creating a brand out of their personal history as firefighters. Their company now boasts 903 locations in 43 states and Puerto Rico, with international expansion to Canada and Mexico planned for the near future. How did the franchisor build such an impressive brand and reputation? With the help of bloggers, of course.

Liz Anderson, public relations manager for Firehouse Subs, presented the franchise’s case study for successful blogger engagement to public relations professionals at a recent speaking engagement. By offering personal hospitality and creating a unique brand experience, you can achieve great results, too. Here are six ways to get the ball rolling:

1. Identify your brand’s authenticity.

The Sorensen’ firefighting heritage is central to the Firehouse brand identity. What defines your brand’s authenticity? You’ll find the answer in the enduring stories of people who stand behind your mission. Your philanthropic initiatives should also speak to your brand. At the heart of Firehouse’s brand is the Firehouse Public Safety Fund, which the Sorensens founded in 2005, in the aftermath of that year’s devastating hurricanes.

2. Pay attention to the influence of bloggers on your industry.

The media landscape is continually changing. Over the years, blogging has grown from an up-and-coming niche to a universal mode of digital communication. Often labeled as “non-traditional” or “grass roots media,” bloggers have become a dominant presence in social media. Find out which bloggers have the biggest voice in your industry.

3. Build relationships with local blogging communities.

As Firehouse broadened its national footprint, the company saw the need to build deeper awareness of its brand in emerging local markets as well as areas where sales had been lagging. Your company may also be expanding faster than its reputation, so address that hurdle head-on. After tapping into the blogger network in one area and seeing results, Firehouse recognized that it could replicate this initiative coast to coast.

4. Create an engaging experience.

Firehouse initiated a series of “Blogger Dinners” to which the company invited influential bloggers for tastings at local franchises. Blogger Dinners were held in nine different markets.

However, your unique brand experience must go beyond a mere product sampling. Firehouse positioned its events as “dinner with the founder.” Participants had an authentic experience with Robin Sorensen, whose tradition and values as a firefighter are a living testament to the brand.

5. Measure your results.

Blogger Dinners achieved “mega results,” in Anderson’s words, “by creating the opportunity to engage the bloggers with a brand they may or may not have heard about.” These events were enormously successful at building brand awareness through word of mouth, personal hospitality, local support and third-party endorsement.

Early in your planning stages, make sure to take measures to track your campaign on social media. Firehouse used the hashtag #feedthefire. Since initiating the Blogger Dinner concept, Firehouse Subs’ story count has grown 75 percent. A total of 60 bloggers in nine different markets sparked 547,000 impressions, 380 social media posts and 562 blog comments.

6. Build on your success.

To introduce its brand to national media, Firehouse expanded the Blogger Dinner into something much larger. Building on the hospitality industry’s “familiarization tour” model, Firehouse invited nine nationally published writers and bloggers to the Sorensens’ ranch in Montana. The venture yielded explosive results, including 92 million impressions and close to a $500,000 value in media. Don’t worry, though: You don’t need a ranch in Montana to identify your brand; what you need to do is challenge your company to evolve your blogger experience into something remarkable.

For more than a decade, top national corporations have trusted the experienced PR pros at Axia Public Relations to build their brands and reputations. Contact us today to get moving on a strategic campaign to turn bloggers into true believers and ambassadors for your brand. To learn more about what we can do for your company, tune into this  Q&A webinar led by award-winning PR practitioner and Axia CEO Jason Mudd.

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Paul R. Witkowski, MPA, is a communications professional acclaimed for delivering innovative and cost-effective results. With more than 20 years of PR experience, Paul is well-versed in developing effective relationships with business partners and communities. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter @prWit904.

Topics: media relations, public relations, inbound marketing, franchisors, shared media

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