Franchise PPC at Scale: Managing Owner Requests and Localization

In a humorous scene in “The Founder,” the biopic about Ray Kroc and the growth of McDonald’s, Mr. Kroc stops by to do a quick QA check on his new franchisee locations. But he  quickly finds that the wealthy and retired new owners have no interest in actually running a franchise – blatantly ignoring the menu and general quality standards. One location was even offering fresh fried chicken.

“People love fried chicken!”

“Do they? Then let them go somewhere where they serve fried chicken.”


Ignoring that Chicken McNuggets are among the most loved items on the current McDonald’s menu, the scene illustrates one of the most difficult aspects of running a franchise business from the corporate side: standardization.

At the time portrayed in the movie, McDonald’s was driven by speedy service paired with a delicious, always-consistent hamburger, but the individual owner in the above situation had a different idea:

Corporate Stance: McDonald’s —–> Fast, fresh, & consistent hamburgers

Owner Stance: MY McDonald’s —–> Hamburgers PLUS fried chicken and whatever else my kitchen is capable of making.

Should the owner’s location above be considered a representative location for the brand overall? If your brand team says yes, surely the franchise owners love them for being so open! Otherwise, the above situation is the bane of the team’s existence and the reason why modern franchisee legal agreements exist.

But no system is 100-percent standardized, and allowances for variance must be taken into consideration. Even McDonald’s, the poster child for franchise standardization, has local specialties (you won’t be getting a beef hamburger at a McDonald’s in India).

Looking at a previous article on standardization and management of online local listings for franchisees, we can say variance is related to potential entropy.

This principle holds just as true in Paid Search programs, if not more so! Whereas local listings can generally be bucketed into overarching groups where the biggest variance might be “hey, this location serves coffee and this one doesn’t,” there’s nearly an infinite amount of possibilities in paid search, being able to bid on any tangentially related keyword… and as every franchise brand manager knows, every owner has great ideas for keywords that they NEED to implement for their location.

So what does this mean for managing national/global franchise paid search programs?

Let’s create a franchise scenario:

  • A hot new franchise system on the market, the Double R Diner, has 10 locations across Colorado, Wyoming, and Ohio.
  • They are growing, with 5 more locations on the horizon, and offers to take the brand coast to coast are starting to come in!
  • They’re known for their exceptional coffee and All-American breakfast menu + a well-received late-night service (open 24 hours).

A particular Denver-based paid search agency known for franchise digital marketing management runs their Google AdWords account, targeting the area around each location, and running ads early-late morning + late nights. (To note, they’ve been providing killer results and the franchisees couldn’t be happier.)

With the recent rapid growth, variance begins to creep in:

  • The three Ohio locations want to start offering catering (corporate approved for test run). One of the 3 wants to also offer a Mexican-themed menu as one of the line cooks shared some recipes with the owner.
  • Two Wyoming locations and one Colorado location noted that a lot of their clients come from afar (+30 miles away) just to get a breakfast platter and think targeting people farther away is the smart choice.
  • One Colorado location does not want to offer 24-hour service, which is against the franchise agreement.

All the above owners want these changes to be reflected in their online Google ads, and corporate has a history of letting franchise owners make requests directly to the agency.

I will now break down this situation to illustrate how important it is for the corporate side to have a plan for managing these requests.

Mixed Catering (Catering/Mexican Menu)

Catering will prompt the need for a keyword set, ad creative, and sitelinks to be uniformly applied to these three locations with the potential to be applied to all locations.

If corporate hasn’t affirmed that catering has the potential to expand to other locations, this will delay the ability to rapidly expand the same keywords and creative across all of the accounts.

Without additional budget provided by owner or corporate, the new keywords may also throttle the location’s account and harm conversion and front-end metrics.

The paid search manager, without knowing that the Mexican offering is only happening at one location without corporate approval, will likely listen to the franchise owner and create the new ads on their behalf. By letting the individual franchisee dictate the marketing, they may intentionally or unintentionally create a variance that harms the brand (“The Double R serves tacos, right?”).

Settings Variance (Geography)

In this case, if the locations have a sufficient budget to cover the area directly around them, owners should have free reign over their distance within reason and as long as all parties avoid overlap in targeted areas.

Brand Violations (No 24-Hour Service)

This one is tricky, as the owner is in clear violation of the brand policy. In the interim, it is probably best to avoid false advertising for this location and allow the request to go through (if not pausing the account altogether until resolution). The ad schedule and relevant ad groups will also have to be adjusted to no longer target the late-night crowd in that area.

Cases like this may show a brand it’s necessary for a variance of this magnitude to be implemented (areas that don’t have the population to sustain 24-hour service). In response, they could clarify messaging through local listings management and Paid Search.

The lessons we learned here: 

Centrally prepare for new multi-location promotions and offerings.

There are benefits of corporate working with the agency directly to plan for seasonally appropriate and planned promotions before the individual owners feel the need to request additions:

  • Stop rogue owners early
  • Internal business intelligence analysts get clearer data/ability to plan experiments
  • Accounts are easily prepped for rapid deployment of new ad groups

This also allows owners to focus on a common direction rather than sending individual requests to be denied. No one likes being told no.

Limit what franchisees can request.

Settings such as time of day and geo-targeting don’t affect brand messaging, and as long as nearby locations are not affected, are relatively risk-free. By forcing any other major requests to go through proper channels within corporate, central planning becomes easier to accomplish.

Keep in mind that this also requires the person(s) within corporate who manages requests between owners and agency must know the business and be able to make decisions – or risk a communications bottleneck.

Teach and enforce online brand guidelines

Avoid confusion, the owners now have structure to work around, and gives the paid agency representative ground to stand on if a problematic request comes in.

Contribute significant budget to franchisee campaigns

Franchisees will be thankful for the contribution, and this gives corporate opinion more power.

Keep in mind that the above example would be considered a simple situation to handle. For a brand like McDonald’s, the scale of these issues is magnified in a way that makes the example above seem trivial – the sheer amount of organization needed to maintain consistency in messaging and targeting while pushing time and region-sensitive promotions and menu items across 36,000+ locations requires experience and cooperation across all parties involved (not to mention franchise business-specific digital marketing management and data visualization technology).


Is your franchise business on the cusp of being great? Find out if the company is ready with this diagnostic checklist by Jim Collins, author of Good to Great.

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