Subway Campaign Stresses Customization, Marks 'New Direction'

Struggling QSR giant Subway is focusing on the customization and affordability of its sandwiches and salads in its first new branding campaign in years. 

Called “Make It What You Want,” the campaign spans TV, social media and digital channels in the U.S. It will kick off with a 60-second “Anthem” ad (below) airing during tonight’s Olympics coverage on NBC.

The ad — marking a decidedly new style and voice for the brand — features a rapid montage of live action, user-generated content and animation. Young adults, teens and kids are shown eating Subway fare as they engage in energetic and downright daring activities. The takeaway message: “In life and in food, don’t take what you are given. Make it what you want.”



This is the first new work for the brand since it moved—for the first time in 25 years—to consolidate its North American creative and media work with one partner. That partner, The Franchise @ Dentsu Aegis Network, is a customized team that includes talent from across the Dentsu Aegis Network, including Carat NY, Mcgarrybowen NY, Carat Canada, and DentsuBos. The choice was announced this past December. 

The campaign’s strategy and creative were guided by a “people-first worldview, achieved through advanced analytics,” Subway reports.

“This campaign marks a new direction for us,” summed up Chris Carroll, chief advertising officer at Subway. “We're defining who we are in a more contemporary way, and uniting our brand with today’s consumer’s lifestyles” — although “customization, every day affordability and delicious, nutritious sandwiches are still at the core of our business.” 

“Subway is the only quick-service restaurant that truly celebrates individuality and customization,” added Craig Cimmino, executive creative director, Mcgarrybowen NY. 

The campaign comes at a crucial juncture for the now 52-year-old, still family-owned fast-food chain.

An accumulation of challenges over the past several years have caught up with the brand. Increased competition from fresh, “clean” format fast casuals and QSRs — including efforts to offer healthier fare by the likes of McDonald’s — have undercut Subway’s own fresh, better-for-you fast food brand promise.  

Increasing the price of its popular “$5 Footlong” (actually $4.99) to respond to franchisees’ struggles to maintain profitability contributed to traffic declines (down 25% over the past five years, according to an internal Subway memo obtained by The New York Post). But a recent move to revive the offer led to something of a franchisee revolt. Consumers have complained that the chain’s ingredients quality has slipped. 

Continued expansion of units until the last few years exacerbated the problems. And bouts with high-profile bad publicity haven’t helped. As if the 2015 arrest and conviction for child pornography of longtime Subway spokesperson Jared Fogel wasn’t bad enough, the brand endured a recently dismissed but long-lingering lawsuit charging that its footlong sandwiches measured only 11 inches, and a social media frenzy over its (former) use in its bread of a chemical used in yoga mats. 

The results: Technomic estimated that Subway’s domestic system-wide sales declined by $200 million, or 1.7%, in 2016 alone (to $11.3 billion, from $11.5 billion in 2015). 

And while Subway still has the largest number of restaurant units internationally (44,000 in 113 countries) and domestically (25,835 as of December), its count declined by 355 in 2016 and, according to media reports, 900 in 2017. Some 21,000 of its locations are franchisee-owned.
Subway has launched a multi-year initiative to revive the brand. The new marketing campaign was preceded by a push to give its locations a “Fresh Forward” redesign said to reflect what customers’ desired experience in the stores. More than 40 U.S. location redesigns had been completed as of the end of last year.

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