November 2, 2021

The Subway Branding Challenge

As a brand matures, it builds perceptual images. Some of these images are of great benefit to the brand; strong and powerful positive word associations. Inevitably, every brand has at least some negative images as well. In last week’s Tuesdays With Coleman blog, I wrote about Victoria’s Secret. After years of success, the women’s clothing store had to deal with declining sales brought on by negative images that included outdated campaigns and models. Their answer was to introduce a far more diverse lineup of models and clothes, targeting women that would have never previously shopped at Victoria’s Secret. That strategy requires a major change in consumer perceptions. One option to accomplish that perceptual shift is a name change. But that would have required starting from scratch and a massive investment to educate the consumer as to what the new name stands for. Or the brand can keep the name, but dramatically change direction and be loud about it so distracted consumers will notice. As I alluded to last week, Victoria’s Secret opted for the latter strategy—keeping the name while aggressively changing direction.

There’s another brand going through tough times and declining sales, and this week we’ll examine what happens when a brand attempts a major strategic directional change the wrong way. As recently as 2013, Subway had 41% of the market share for “limited-service sandwich chains”. Today, it’s down to 28% and slipping. Competition is one big reason why. Sales at Jersey Mike’s, Firehouse Subs, and Jimmy John’s doubled and tripled over the same time frame. Other reasons include overexpansion, a breakfast failure, and internal issues. Recently it was sued, claiming the tuna wasn’t actually tuna. From a branding standpoint, the impact of spokesperson Jared Fogle going to jail in 2015 on child sex charges can’t be overstated. From 2000 to 2015, Jared was the face of Subway and the marketing wasn’t so much about the product as it was about how Subway is healthy and can help you lose weight.

When they dropped Jared, instead of continuing to focus on health and diet, Subway started focusing on the product. And it turned out the product, as competitors offered fresher, healthier, more innovative alternatives, just wasn’t that exciting.

If this part sounds familiar, perhaps the Domino’s Pizza 2009 “Oh Yes We Did” campaign comes to mind.

Domino’s didn’t tiptoe around the fact that research showed many consumers perceived Domino’s to have an inferior product. They made an incredible video admitting it, and millions of views later, it’s still worth a watch.

Themes of this video were sliced into smaller, snackable pieces of audio and visual marketing including social media posts.

Like Victoria’s Secret, Domino’s dramatically changed its strategic direction by reinventing its pizza from the ground up. And when it was time to tell people about it, the message was very clear and it was everywhere.

Did the campaign work for Domino’s? I bet its shareholders think so. The day that video was published to YouTube, Domino’s stock traded at around eight dollars a share.

Today, it’s just under $500 per share. Wish I’d bought that stock.

Back to Subway, which announced “massive menu changes” in July of this year. 20 new menu updates and new and improved ingredients. They apparently gave away one million free subs to celebrate the launch. Did you know about that? I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t realize Subway made any changes until a colleague told me about it. And I had just had lunch AT SUBWAY.

To be fair, Subway did run TV commercials touting the new items. The spot starred four of the most recognizable athletes on Earth—Serena Williams, Megan Rapinoe, Stephen Curry, and Tom Brady (who basically says at the end that he wouldn’t personally eat it).

It’s no different than the classic Radio mistake—a radio station that is trying to build a Base Music Position uses a big personality to promote the station. You remember the personality, not the kind of music the station plays. Just like Subway. You remember Tom Brady, not the new menu.

I vividly remember when this spot first ran. I had lunch with my colleagues John Boyne, Warren Kurtzman and Jay Nachlis (not at Subway), when one of us mentioned the new Subway ad with all the athletes. None of us knew what the ad was about. What could Subway have done differently?

  • Celebrities likely got in the way of the messaging. Subway could have made sure the message was more direct.
  • The sandwiches in the advertising looked identical to the previous sandwiches. If selling a major change, they needed to look significantly different.
  • The Tom Brady nod to the advertising-skeptic generation probably went over people’s heads.
  • The in-store experience should have also been dramatically different, with clear, new presentations of the new sandwiches and ingredients and even a refurbishing of the stores for people to notice.
  • The logo needed to change to communicate a major shift. Subway has multiple major head-on competitors.
  • Subway probably didn’t run enough marketing for a campaign of this magnitude.

So remember the lesson of last week’s blog: If a brand changes its strategy dramatically without changing its name, it requires a dramatic plan. A name change alone is not enough. But without a name change the product change needs to be HUGE.

For the best chance at success, use the Victoria’s Secret/Domino’s method, not the Subway method. Aggressively market, but most importantly be very clear about the new position you’re trying to sell without letting other noise get in the way.




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