Ten Questions about Branding with Water Babies

The bfa recently spoke to Paul Thompson, co-founder of Water Babies to discuss their prominent branding, and why they believe this helps their franchise.

Water Babies have been in business for over 15 years now, at what stage did you/the owners realise Water Babies had become a brand in your sector?

When we attended an international conference on infant swimming in Wellington, New Zealand in 2006. Sitting among our peers in the industry from around the world, it suddenly dawned on us that while we were teaching around 10,000 babies and toddlers every week, nobody else came close (the next largest baby swim school was only teaching around 3,000). There was a sudden realisation that we were no longer a kitchen-table family business - we were, in fact, the largest baby swim school in the world!

When developing your brand, did you have a marketing and brand strategy in place? And if so, at what stage did you implement it?

Firstly, we have always been unashamedly premium. Everything we do has to be the best it can possibly be. It's the only way to be if you want to be the market leader. When we first set up Water Babies, we had just £5,000 to launch the business with, and we spent all of it on branding. That’s how important brand is to us.

Our original marketing strategy was centred around PR: 15 years ago, baby swimming was a relatively unknown concept, and as a result, we got lots of press, both local and national. This meant that we didn’t do much paid-for advertising, because we didn’t have to. PR enabled us to raise awareness of baby swimming generally, with the natural result that we raised the brand awareness of Water Babies, too.

How has operating a franchised brand benefited your franchisees in the short and long term?

The most valuable aspect of buying a Water Babies franchise is the brand itself. Water Babies is a well-established, trusted brand and our teaching qualifications are endorsed by Swim England. We have 15 years’ worth of families who have been through the Water Babies journey, and they are only too happy to share the benefits of our programme in person and online. We know that potential clients will trust the advice of their friends and family above any paid-for marketing, meaning our great reputation is everything. We really believe in our programme and so do the carers that choose Water Babies. So our franchisees benefit from the national and international reputation we have carved out, giving them an immediate advantage over our competitors.

Is brand training incorporated into new franchisees training programme and do you have brand guidelines in place?

Yes, brand training is a major part of our training programme for new franchisees. Not just as part of our marketing training: it underpins all our training, so from aquatics to IT, everything must be brand standard. We've recently produced a set of Master Franchisor Brand Guidelines, and are in the process of updating our Franchisee Brand Guidelines to be in-line with this, which we'll roll out to our network. And crucially, we'll ensure these guidelines are understood, because ultimately this is what will make brand compliance easier for all of us.

How do you monitor franchisees and ensure they adhere to brand guidelines in their on- and off-line marketing?

We have a monthly audit of each franchise to ensure they are adhering to brand guidelines. Each office also goes through an internal business quality audit each year, and one of the elements they’re assessed on is brand compliance. What’s more, we’ve also built into our franchise contracts that any breach of brand standard will be penalised. Thankfully this is a rare occurrence. But it does happen.  

As the franchisor, you set the tone and voice of the brand, how do you ensure franchisees meet/match these in their service delivery?

Communication is an important element of our brand guidelines and training – not only from a marketing perspective, but also how we interact and communicate with all the different people and organisations we encounter. And for us, the main recipients of any such interaction would be the tens of thousands of parents who bring their little ones swimming with us each week. So alongside our incredibly thorough initial training that every franchisee (and teacher) goes through, we have a network of mentors who regularly check that both new and existing teachers are delivering their lessons in accordance with brand guidelines.

When selling a franchise, how important is it for franchisees to share some of the core values and principles that lay at the heart of your brand?

We are a people-focused business. It takes a certain type of person to be part of the Water Babies family. We call it 'The Thing', it's an undefinable quality that marks out a Water Babies franchisee or staff member. We have had people come to Water Babies who have money to buy a franchise, but are not the right fit for us.

Has your brand stayed the same since its inception or has it evolved?

We've always been a premium brand, and our brand values have always stayed the same.  Our visual identity has changed over time, but it's been an evolution, rather than a revolution, as it's important to us to always maintain our strong brand personality.

As we have moved internationally, we have had to consider our brand overseas, particularly in regards to China. We are working with a new market, so we have been through a localisation process to ensure our brand is fit for purpose. 

Do you think brands need refreshing? And if so, how often do you re-fresh your brand?

I would never pin down a timeframe on it. And I would not refresh a brand identity just for the sake of it. When you work within a business, you can easily fall into the trap of being fatigued with your own brand because you see the same logo and the same imagery every day. Your clients are very unlikely to see it the same way, though. Particularly with our target market of parents and carers of babies from birth, where we have a regular intake of new clients.

Finally, if I asked 10 different people what their definition of a brand is, I’d probably get 10 different answers, what’s your own definition of a brand?

For me, brand is a company's total personality – what we look like, what we say, how we act, and ultimately, how we make people feel.


Water Babies began in 2002, since then they have grown incredibly fast and currently have 71 franchises, running 79 outlets across the UK, Ireland, The Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand and China, with Germany launching this year. For more information, please visit their Members Directory on our website: https://www.thebfa.org/members/water-babies-ltd/



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