Subway positions itself as healthy fast-food option

Spokesman and pop-culture icon Jared Fogle has helped Subway tout its low-fat menu options to consumers as the go-to healthy alternatives in the fast-food marketplace.

Spokesman and pop-culture icon Jared Fogle has helped Subway tout its low-fat menu options to consumers as the go-to healthy alternatives in the fast-food marketplace.

From a PR standpoint, it was the equivalent of hitting the lottery. A few years ago, a woman in Indiana wrote to Subway, telling the company how her son had lost 245 pounds in one year on a steady diet of Subway food. That man, Jared Fogle, would soon become the face and voice synonymous with Subway's movement to position itself as the leader in healthy fast food. "You can't top that," says Kevin Kane, PR manager for Doctor's Associates, the franchiser for Subway. "In PR, how often do you step in that?" When Jared's story made its way to the media, it not only conveyed the message that Subway's offerings are fresh - something that has been a part of the company's message from the beginning - but gave real-life evidence that Subway's menu was low in fat and could be part of a healthy diet. And, for the communications department, it definitely indicated that the time was right to step up promotion and increase public awareness of these healthy offerings. When the health-food craze swung into high gear, fast-food chains like McDonald's and Burger King made adjustments to their high-fat offerings. On the other hand, Subway had the advantage of simply having to adjust the message about menu items already available at its chain of sandwich shops. "We didn't reengineer our menu to go along with the trend," says Michele DiNello, director of corporate communication at Doctor's Associates. "We just started re-educating." Kane agrees that Subway's message of freshness is one that was enforced long before Fogle came into play. "That was always in place and something we keyed in on," he says. Still, Fogle's story certainly gave the company a platform from which it could launch its healthy-eating campaign. One of Fogle's first appearances was on The Oprah Winfrey Show. "That certainly spearheaded his popularity," DiNello says. "Jared is almost a pop-culture icon. He's a celebrity." And while the outsized success of Fogle's tale almost eliminated the need for pitching stories, it didn't diminish the workload of the communications team. With Fogle as a spokesman, the team set its sights on targeting different types of publications, venturing into the consumer space, says DiNello. Integral role of comms The communications structure at Subway is a bit complex. In a company that includes an intricate system of 22,000 franchises in 79 countries, communications is bound to play an integral part in all everyday business. "Our communication is broad-based," DiNello says. As part of the communications team at Doctor's Associates, she and Kane work closely with the Subway Franchisee Advertising Fund Trust (SFAFT), a separate entity responsible for marketing and advertising initiatives. In addition, SFAFT has a PR department that works closely with both Doctor's Associates and Subway's AOR, Fleishman-Hillard. "It's a really good working collaboration," Kane says. "It's a really good team effort." With so many franchises around the world, communicating the company's goals and news to those franchises falls upon the team at Doctor's Associates. "Communications filters through everything that we do," DiNello says. "It's a key element to the success of our business." Subway is a company that prides itself on its history. And the story of its founder, Fred DeLuca, starting the business as a teen from the projects in Brooklyn, NY, is one that is referred to on the website and in conversations with the communications team. As a further testament to the company's success, Entrepreneur named Subway the number one franchise for last year. Promoting the idea of the franchises has always been a focus for Subway, and it plays an integral part in the company's media outreach, as well. DiNello says personal tales of franchise owners are sometimes pitched to both consumer and b-to-b publications. One of Subway's most visible franchisees of late is Stacie Jones Upchurch, who competed on The Apprentice. Even before her appearance on the show, she was featured in several industry publications because of her unique background as a Ford model, DiNello says. Although her contract with the show prevented Subway from fully promoting her appearance, the team at Doctor's Associates successfully promoted her participation within the company and to other franchisees. Subway is not too often the subject of controversy, but a move last summer by several of its franchises overseas garnered its share of media attention. German franchises entered into a deal with the distributor of Super Size Me, a documentary that attacked McDonald's high-fat menu. The move made strategic sense for Subway because it positions itself as the healthy alternative to fast food. But the Subway tray liner featured an overweight Statue of Liberty holding a hamburger and fries with the tagline, "Why are Americans so fat?" Groups like the Center for Individual Freedom protested, calling Subway anti-American, and a media firestorm ensued. "It was an issue," DiNello says. "There was a lot of misinformation surrounding the Super Size Me [tray] liners." And educating the public was not the only concern. Communicating the correct information to its franchises was important, as well, DiNello says. "We had to explain what was happening," she adds. In addition, the organizations involved in the anti-American claims had to be informed of the facts. Both Kane and DiNello say they were satisfied that the media eventually picked up the correct message. Commitment to health Controversy aside, the one message Subway is committed to conveying to the public is one of health. More than four years after Fogle burst onto the scene, Subway has taken a lead in the race to secure a place as a healthy fast-food dining experience, in spite of changing diet fads. "How can a sandwich shop survive and thrive in a no-carb environment? It's counterintuitive," says Michael Berland, partner at Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, a market research firm. "Yet Subway has turned that focus into a core part of their brand, and it has propelled them further." Part of Subway's success is due to its ability to identify consumer needs and meet them, he adds. "As the issues evolved, Subway has evolved with them," he says. "They switched their positioning to really control the dialogue of what healthy fast food looks like. They're the in brand right now." Paying attention to its customers has influenced Subway's success, says Jennifer English, founder of the Food & Wine Radio Network. "Being realistic about how people eat is an important part of the strategic messaging," she says. "They have come a long way from just being a sub shop to being ... a healthy convenience option for people, food-wise." That image of healthfulness has perhaps been enhanced through Subway's alliance with organizations like the American Heart Association (AHA), something English says is not only a good example of cause-related marketing, but comes across as genuine to the consumer. One of the company's latest health initiatives is promoting the message of a healthy lifestyle at a young age. In July, Subway launched the Feel Responsible, Energized, Satisfied, and Happy (or FRESH) Steps program and became the first-ever sponsor of the AHA's Jump Rope for Heart program. And Fogle, the man who best brought that goal to light, is still very much involved. His "Jared and Friends" school tour continues to travel around the country, promoting the virtues of a healthy lifestyle to young children. With Subway set to celebrate its 40th anniversary this year, DiNello says, its future plans involve "tweaking" the offerings to better serve the public and informing them of those adjustments. "I think every company is always looking to improve," she says. "As simple as it sounds, that's what we want to do." ---------- PR contacts Corporate comms director Michele DiNello PR manager Kevin Kane PR supervisor (Subway Franchisee Advertising Fund Trust) Mack Bridenbaker PR agency Fleishman-Hillard

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in