Can activism be franchised?

Picture this. You’ve got a stellar idea for a groundbreaking campaign that will open up the doors to thousands of people taking meaningful action on an issue you’ve been trying to crack for years.

You’ve lovingly crafted a roadmap that has the perfect mixture of strategic and tactical ingenuity from the centre, but with significant room for customisation by the grassroots.

You excitedly present it to colleagues across your organisation, who like your energy, but have some questions…

How will we know what everyone is doing in our name?

How will we make sure the [logo/fonts/visual marketing] are used correctly on those [posters/banners] you’re encouraging everyone to make?

What will do we do if activists say the wrong thing to [politicians]?

And finally…

Are we sure this is going to be ‘on brand’?

The urge to protect

It’s no secret that most big organisations have a deep desire to keep control of their brands. And who can blame them? A recognisable brand is what keeps the donations coming in, attracts the best people to apply for jobs, makes other organisations want to partner with them – the list goes on. People need to know who they’re giving to, or what they’re getting themselves in to. Consistency is key.

I understand the instinct to fiercely protect the brand, but feel conflicted about it. Conflicted because, in my experience, activists achieve the most when they have the autonomy to say what a cause or issue means to them, in their own words. The best activists don’t read out scripts, and they don’t tend to care about the corporate colour palette. I see that brands that are making space for meaningful participation are winning the most (as evidenced by the excellent Networked Change report and then the New Power book which I can’t recommend highly enough).

So I’ve found myself conflicted and wondering: Is it possible to ‘control the brand’ while offering meaningful activism? Are there models out there of maintaining strong brands while setting them free? Or is this an oxymoron?

Franchising: a middle ground?

I like to look up and out of non-profits from time to time, to see what’s happening in the commercial world. I started thinking about franchising. Not an area I knew the slightest thing about, but isn’t that just the beauty of the internet. A few articles and videos later, and I found myself drawing some parallels between businesses and campaigning groups that want to have more impact – be that generating more revenue or winning public policy change – while keeping hold of their brands.

Why businesses franchise

Businesses adopt a franchise model when they want to grow, without personally opening up every new store. They get fees and royalties from franchisees, which has advantages over relying on investors or lenders. McDonald’s, Costa and Nisa are among the most well-known franchise chains in the UK, but there are plenty of low profile and niche franchises around too.

Clear (and legal) agreements exist between the franchisor – the parent company that licenses its brand for use – and the franchisee – the individual who purchases the right to use the brand. Among other things, these agreements allow the franchisor to specify quality-control requirements. In other words, the parent company can set rules that every franchisee must follow in order to use the brand.

One example of this, given in the aforementioned book New Power, is the rules TED Talks lay down for local ‘TEDx’ organisers:

“Spirit/purpose: Your event must maintain the spirit of TED itself: multidisciplinary, focused on the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. TEDx events are not agenda or single-topic driven.

Length: Your event may not exceed one day in length.

Location: TED allocates one location-based license series per applicant; you must live in the city for which you are applying for a license. Your TEDx event must happen in the city for which you received the license. TEDx events do not travel — a TEDx license is valid for one city, and for one event.”

(The list goes on!)

As the authors point out, TED have increased access to the brand without abandoning control. “The parameters are designed to preserve what TED sees as intrinsic to its model: high-quality curation, the absence of a profit motive, and a ban on pay-to-play sponsors”, they say. Despite all the rules, the prospect of hosting a TEDx is still highly appealing, evidenced by the fact that over 27,000 events have taken place so far.

“Think of TEDx as hosting an awesome dinner party, with great food, inspirational videos, brilliant speakers and mind-blowing conversation. By organizing a TEDx event, you will have the opportunity to create a truly unique event that will unleash new ideas, inspire and inform.”

– TED’s offer to prospective franchisees

So franchisors keep control of the brand while allowing others to participate and in so doing, reach more people (normally, customers). Let’s turn now to consider what’s in it for the franchisee.

Why borrow a brand

Starting anything from scratch is tough. The advantage of buying into a franchise, as compared to starting up a new business independently, is that it offers a chance to ‘plug-and-play.’

Someone else has established that the business model works, developed a product that customers want, set up all the policies and processes needed to run things smoothly, established a strong brand that people will respond to, and built a community of franchisees.

Carrying these principles over to the world of activism, there are plenty of individuals who want to get involved in campaigning in meaningful ways, but without the time, resources or desire to start completely from scratch. (I acknowledge that there are exceptions to this: some individuals will want to set up their own campaigning groups from scratch, and with the barriers to entry lower than ever before, they can do so fairly easily. But just as most small businesses don’t succeed nor will most campaigning start-ups. The number of volunteer applications NGOs like mine get is further evidence that big brands still carry significant currency).

A strong family

Franchises can offer a less risky way of building something. Franchisees get the benefits of trading off of an established brand and back-up from a centralised parent.

Nisa, a franchise which describes itself as a family of independent grocers, was set up in 1977 to, in its words, ‘protect the interests of independent retailers against the influx of the major multiples’. It offers a range of franchise options and support from ‘very skilled and trained in-house staff in all areas of retailing’.

It’s fascinating to reflect on the way Harj, owner of Nisa in Mickleton, talks about how he views the relationship with the centre working:

This is a marketing video produced by the centre, so not likely to be a completely objective view of the relationship. Nevertheless, the take-away for me is that franchises done well leave plenty of autonomy and room for customisation to the local setting, but with strong support from the centre. As Harj puts it, the HQ doesn’t work by dictating to you what you should do, but by works with you to achieve something mutually beneficial.

Acting alone, together

Another franchisee whose account I read described the model as ‘feeling like you’re doing something yourself, without feeling you’re by yourself.’  This has strong parallels with how we try to make prospective volunteers feel about campaigning with us in non-profits. It’s about doing something about the issues you care about, alongside like-minded people, all following the same tactics, that point towards one, shared goal.

I see something similar in how Jazzercise, a US fitness company with an superb name, pitches their offer to prospective franchisees:

Isn’t it striking how similar their offer to franchisees is to our offer to prospective activists? So how much of the advert is about how these part-time instructors feel about being involved, alongside other people like them.

Skills development 

Another hallmark of the franchise is the structured induction and training offered by the centre.

Angela’s Swim School, a growing UK franchise set up by an ex-international swimmer, sets out its offer to prospective franchisees:

“We provide a specialised intensive training course so that you can successfully run your franchise. The training covers all administration, customer bookings, marketing and our unique teaching methods. We will identify any further training you need after the course and you will not start your business until you are 100% confident and ready […] We will work closely with you to promote the business in your chosen franchise area before your launch and provide you with initial marketing materials. You will also be set up with an email and a website page and links to our social media accounts.”

– Angela’s Swim School

McDonald’s sets out a similar offer, but also a warning that training takes a minimum of nine months. Similarly, TONI&GUY, a well-known hairdressing franchise in the UK, expects prospective franchisees to work for TONI&GUY for at least one year to ‘gain the invaluable experience you need to represent the brand’.

I suspect those of us thinking about involving volunteer campaigner in a franchise-type way may need to have a lower barrier to entry. It’s interesting to muse about how much training is enough training, and how much training needs to be completed up front, vs ‘on the job.’


Franchises also benefit from templates and off-the-shelf products they can use in their localities.

For example, Nutty Scientists, an education franchise operating in 40 countries, provides 120 workshops and ‘thousands of science experiments’ for franchisees to use. It also gives each location a customisable microsite on its website, branded promotional material, and access to an intranet to download sample proposals, images, videos, scripts, and so on.

This is similar to the campaign packs we’re well used to developing for activists. I’m not convinced we always get the range or depth right, or offer enough customisable tools, though. Most volunteer campaigners don’t have access to tools to make their own branded materials, or directly edit their own website pages, for example.

Is franchising the future?

So, to summarise, big brands can offer the following to individuals when they franchise:

  1. A strong centre or ‘parent’ you can go-to for advice
  2. A community of like-minded individuals in the same position as you
  3. A structured induction and training programme
  4. A range of templates and off-the-shelf products ready to use

In return, brands can bring more people into their organisations and scale at unprecedented rates. An attractive thought, right?

Having caught the franchise bug, I’m on the look out for non-profits that take a similar approach. So far I’ve thought of ParkRun (a great blog on the lessons we activists can learn from these group is here) and, as mentioned above, TEDx. Charities with a federation structure like that of Mind have commonalities with franchises in terms of their service delivery. But I’m searching for brands that structure their opportunities to campaign in a franchise-like way. Know of some? Please get in touch!

One thought on “Can activism be franchised?

  1. Pingback: “Capital can’t concentrate in areas where capital doesn’t exist.”

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