Ben Lawrence, PhD’11

in Graduate Student Profiles, Marketing, PhD Graduate Profiles, Student Profiles
September 28th, 2010

Ben LawrenceRaised in Indonesia by British parents till he was 18, Ben Lawrence (PhD ’11) came to the states in 1993 to study hospitality at the Hotel School at Cornell University.

From there he studied marketing at Texas A&M, where he earned his MBA. Initially interested in the idea of brand communities and social influence, Ben began the PhD program at BU with a focus on the consumer. After taking a class as a PhD student with the School’s Marketing Department Chair Patrick Kaufmann on distribution channels, he realized there was a place where social relations and distribution merged: in the study of franchisee/franchisor relationships. It was a topic that, until that point, had barely been touched. He quickly chose the area for his dissertation.

Historically, franchise relationships have been viewed from an economic lens, through which the franchisor is labeled as the principal and the franchisee as a self-interested agent. But Ben’s research looks at franchisees as embedded actors in a social context. These contexts can include union-like structures called independent franchisee associations that often mediate the relationship between franchisee and franchisor, and may influence the way individual franchisees identify with their franchisors.

“As franchisees gain more power in these union-like structures, their ability to resist mandated change and system-wide adaption increases,” says Ben. “But the more they can relate to the franchisor, the more they will become collaborators, as opposed to obstacles.”

“Current assumptions in the franchising literature aren’t necessarily reflected in the day-to-day reality of franchise systems that are in operation.”

The idea of looking at these relationships in a social context, rather than as purely dyadic, is new, as is the approach that Ben took to his research. Where others had studied these relationships from a distant, quantitative point of view, Ben took a qualitative, in-the-field perspective that included in-depth interviews as well as ethnographic fieldwork such as attending franchisee conferences and social gatherings. It was at these events that he observed firsthand how franchisees relate to each other—and often don’t relate to the franchisor.

“Once you go into the field, you understand that current assumptions in the franchising literature aren’t necessarily reflected in the day-to-day reality of franchise systems in operation,” Ben says.

He observed other behavioral nuances, too, that uprooted the usual thoughts on franchise systems. For one, he found that the franchisee is more often viewed as the stable partner in the relationship, rather than the franchisor. This is because there is high turnover in the senior leadership and ownership of many companies, but meanwhile, there are organizations with relatively low turnover in franchisees, who often pass their franchise down through generations. The franchisees often perceive this discrepancy in stability to mean that they are the more dedicated stewards of the company brand, rather than the company itself. According to Ben, this identity instability on the part of the franchisors is critical to the understanding of the franchisee-franchisor relationship and the development of franchisee-based communal organizations.

“Franchisors in general haven’t really taken to the idea yet that the brand matters to the franchisee,” says Ben.

“If the franchisor doesn’t stake claim to the brand, then the franchisee can—and often does. And when the franchisee association is seen as the legitimate keepers of the brand, rather than the company, then franchisees can appropriate the meanings of the brand and use them to strengthen their opposition to the franchisor and its strategic objectives.

“My advice to franchisors based on my research would be twofold: One, you need to think of your identity not only in relation to how your customers perceive you, but also how your franchisees view the organization. Second, you need to understand that the management of franchisee-based organizations is critical to your ability to adapt and compete in the marketplace.”

Ben is currently conducting survey work to investigate the potential benefit of intrinsic mechanisms such as identification in aligning franchisee and franchisor.