Commentary

The Evolution Of The Sandwich Wars

I love a good sandwich.  Who doesn’t?  A great deli sandwich can be a wonderful thing: an intense combination of delicious deli meats, topped with lettuce, tomato, pickles, jalapenos, pepperoncini and maybe even some bacon, then covered in oil, vinegar, salt, pepper and mayo.  My mouth starts watering just thinking about it!

An ad campaign for a great sandwich place can evoke a tangible reaction in my tastebuds. 

That being said, sandwich advertising is comical to me.  I liken sandwich ads to insurance ads, with both having some of the more innovative messages, trying to differentiate each product even though they have little to no real differentiation.

Sandwich shop brands come and go, each touting a new evolution of the sandwich.

Think back to the late ‘90s and early 2000s.  The first of the sandwich wars took off with Quiznos coming for the Subway crown.  Subway is the single largest restaurant operator in the world, even surpassing McDonald’s.  Aiming to take them out is an ambitious play, but it’s the one objective each sandwich shop is apparently looking to achieve.

So the keen minds at Quiznos came along with the (supposed) innovation of the decade: They decided to toast the bread!  Quiznos dropped millions of dollars into an ad campaign touting its toasting prowess.  Quiznos opened stores everywhere, relying on toaster ovens to save the day.  How could Subway possibly respond?  Well, guess what.  They found a way.  They also bought a toaster oven, and I recall seeing the window stickers at Subway saying “We toast too.” Brilliant move! 

Subway also started offering the $5 footlong, which. coupled with the option to toast the bread, made it hard to compete.  Apparently said innovation had not been patented by the lawyers at Quiznos, which essentially shut down Quiznos’ primary selling point.  Today there are fewer than 150 Quiznos stores in the U.S.

Fast-forward to 2023.  Jersey Mike’s is everywhere, with (not-so) reluctant star Danny Devito spewing the most recent advancement in the sandwich wars.  This one is clearly a revolutionary idea.  This time they will actually -- are you sitting down? -- slice the meat in front of you!  This is awe-inspiring.  This is definitely not something every corner deli in New York has been doing for 50 years.

The ads are fun, with funny costumes and dancing, and they have sandwich-makers slicing turkey right in front of you.  Of course, I walked by a Subway the other day and they had a window sticker subtly stating “we slice the meat in front of you.” 

Now to be fair, Jersey Mike’s also talks about the sounds of sizzling meat on the grill for its  cheesesteaks.  That is definitely better than a microwave, which is how Subway rolls.  That being said, I firmly do not believe in getting a cheesesteak outside of Philadelphia, so that innovation is entirely lost on me.

Jersey Mike’s has a good product.  Its sandwich tastes great, but so do Subway's!    I’ve visited lots of sandwich shops and the distinctions worth advertising usually revolve around the unique combinations they offer, of their special sauce.  These affect the taste and not the experience. When it comes down to it, the taste is what gets you into a sandwich shop.  Not the experience, which you won’t remember as soon as you leave the store.

The taste goes with you.  That is the unique selling proposition. If you want the crown from Subway, make a better sandwich.  Don’t spend millions and millions of dollars on a differentiation that can be undone in less than five minutes and a purchase from Amazon (yes, you can buy a toaster and a knife on Amazon).

Now I have to go.  I’m hungry.

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