The Subway PR Crisis, What Should Franchisees Do?

A Subway franchise owner.

A Subway franchise owner.

Another Reason why Personal Branding Matters

I have written about the Subway Jarod Fogle spokesperson scandal and crisis PR recently. I understand what the management, marketing team and PR firm for Subway is doing this week. It has been a roller-coaster and certainly a challenge for them; this is truly a nightmare for a corporation. While I have discussed spokespeople before in blogs, I am not going to focus on the spokespeople for this blog. I have a different take and a marketing strategy that most franchises should take, both on how to market as well as how to weather a crisis.

Let me start by saying that I like Subway and give them great credit for building a brand and empowering so many entrepreneurs.  I have been to Subway shops many times and have been treated well.  Through Subway, many people around the word are experiencing the American dream of business ownership. They provide for their families, they create jobs as well as economic activity. They provide food at a reasonable cost and for the most part are a positive influence in communities; but, I feel quite sorry these days for the average Subway franchise owner. They have no control over who the corporate management chooses to use as a spokesperson and have little control, if any, over national marketing programs. However, there is no doubt that they do benefit from national marketing and branding efforts. The branding is part of the overall rationale behind franchising in the first place. I have worked with a number of franchises and understand the model from the franchisee as well as the franchisor perspective.

I hope that the marketing team at Subway is thinking about its franchise owners and local operators. The franchise was founded in Connecticut in 1974 and today has close to 70,000 units in over 100 countries. Interestingly the company does not own any units.

The damage of the current controversy will impact store sales, some more than others. Negative publicity for any reason will have an impact.  Most consumers also know that the crisis is not the individual franchisee’s fault, but it is their problem. Negative perceptions will hurt them.

If I was on the Subway marketing team, I would focus my attention on the franchisees and provide them with support, tools and a long term strategy for localized marketing which should include a personal branding and marketing plan for franchise owners. Subway shops are no different than any other local business. They are part of communities and rely on people for business. Franchises like Subway, unlike most other small businesses (restaurants in particular), have owners out front. What I mean by this is that in my market, Long Island, New York, it is not uncommon for you to walk into a diner, Italian restaurant or even a sushi place and be greeted warmly by an owner, chef or hostess. Many of the most successful local restaurants have owners who get to know their patrons, interact with them and treat them special. They make customers feel like family and this builds loyalty. This works with chefs and hostesses as well but not as effectively when you have an owner interacting directly with the customers. The key is the relationship. This relationship-focused approach is something that franchises, and in this case, Subway, need to embrace. When customers know the owners, they have a relationship with them, can compliment them or provide feedback. Even negative feedback is important for businesses and the owner is the best person to deliver it to.

A Subway franchise location.

A Subway franchise location.

Recognizing that franchises do not have this type of structure, for the most part, is a challenge but it can be turned into an advantage if done properly. Like me, many people like Subway, but they don’t know the owner. If they did, when a crisis hits, having a relationship will help the franchisee weather the storm. People will come back because they know the owner and like them. This personal connection is invaluable but must be cultivated. Here are a few personal branding strategies for franchise owners:

  1. Be present: Franchise models are designed so that owners don’t have to be there. While is true, this does not mean that they should not be there. Owners should spend time at their operations, greet people and speak with them.
  2. Be active in the community: Some Subway shops provide food, support and other items for charity or local groups. Owners need to be part of this and part of the engagement with community members.
  3. Local press: There is no reason that good work cannot be touted in the media. Owners, who have interesting stories to tell, should tell them and be available to the local media for stories. However, in the case of Jarod Fogle or crisis situations from corporate, it is best to not to get involved. All media inquiries should be forward to the regional or corporate office. However, local positive business stories or franchise stories are certainly fair game.
  4. Social media: Subway has a large and active social media presence and this helps local owners and operators with branding and promotions. However, local operators should also have a presence online and be part of the online/local online community. Social media should be used to allow the community to get to know who the owner is, what they stand for and what they are passionate about. Again, this is another way to make connections and build valuable relationships that matter when crisis situations occur.
  5. Join local organizations and business groups: This is simple marketing 101. Owners need to be out at groups and remain. Business people need to buy lunch. Do you think that they would frequent Subway shops more often if they know the owner? I do.
  6. Speak: People are interested in big brands and business owners. The branding of Subway or any international brand will open doors. Owners should create presentations for local groups and present the lessons learned as a Subway/business owner.
  7. Educate: Schools and camps are looking for activities for students. They also want to give them life lessons. I remember going to a Roy Rogers as a child. I still remember how they made the burgers and the fact that they placed a little butter on the hamburger buns. This is a memory that has stuck with me for over 40 years.
  8. Have a personal marketing plan: The steps outlined here are part of a personal marketing plan. The owner of a Subway or any franchise should have a personal marketing plan that will allow them to become better known in their community. With the right approach and commitment to the effort, a franchise owner can become a local rock star. We know rock stars attract attention and interest. Interest will lead to customers and will also blossom into relationships. These activities create good will. Through good will and relationships is an insurance policy in the event that a crisis should one day occur.

The Subway Jarod Fogle controversy presents an opportunity for all franchise owners to look at their marketing and their reputations in their communities. Franchisees leverage their brands to grow their businesses and this is an advantage in many ways. Branding and frequent messages builds awareness and a modest level of trust. However, personal relationships and direct interaction with customers build stronger trust and loyalty and can mean the difference in weathering a given crisis.

By Bill Corbett

Corbett Public Relations Long Island and the World 



Working with Celebrities: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Jared Subway

Subway spokesperson Jared Fogle.

The recent Subway controversy with spokesperson Jared Fogle has once again brought unwanted attention to a large corporation. The lesson is: although there are positive aspects about working with celebrities, businesses must be prepared for anything if you decide to go down this path.

Working with celebrities and well-known figures can draw attention to a charity or business. Celebrities such as Betty White (Morris Animal Foundation), Danny Thomas (St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital) and Christina Aguilera (World Hunger Relief), have adopted causes and have been effective spokespeople as well as superb brand ambassadors.

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek.

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek.

Over the years we have seen celebrities endorse products and pitch them to us on television and in most other forms of advertising. Alex Trebek, the host of Jeopardy!, currently promotes reverse mortgages. In past ad campaigns, Wilford Brimley was the spokesperson for diabetes supplies and Sally Struthers implored viewers to “save the children.”

On the local level small businesses work with celebrities too; most often they are former sports stars or entertainers. These “local” celebrities are less expensive and can be very effective in driving attention and awareness of a new brand, local business or not-for-profit. When acting as spokespeople for a temporary campaign or long-term effort these local celebrities can become synonymous with the brand or not-for-profit. The results can be very positive, but pay heed to the current headlines with Jared Fogle and Subway – it is getting very ugly.

Good pitch men and women are spokespeople and celebrities who know how to articulate a message. They can do this in person, as part of an ad campaign and potentially when interviewed by the media. A savvy spokesperson will make sure that they stay on message and get their pitch or promotion out when being interviewed. This is not as easy as you might think. Even when the popularity of a celebrity is on the decline, they will get the attention of interviewers who will typically ask questions related to what the person is best known. This is fair game of course, but it cannot be the only topic for an entire interview. Likewise, the interview cannot be a 100-percent pitch or commercial. An astute spokesperson will balance both and never lose the opportunity for the plug.

Shatner Cuoco Priceline

William Shatner (l) and Kelly Cuoco (r) for

Those who fail to use the opportunity to make the pitch fall into the “bad” category. They have neglected to present the brand message. The company or business that hired and paid the celebrity will not get the attention or PR it needed and expected. Certainly, long-term, experienced spokespeople rarely have this problem; they get to know the businesses and management they work with and are practiced at what they do. William Shatner and Kelly Cuoco (The Big Bang Theory) with are both excellent examples.

The Jared/Subway controversy, just like ones involving Tiger Woods (Nike, Gatorade, Gillette, General Motors) and Lance Armstrong (Live Strong and the United States Postal Service), highlights how celebrity endorsements or relationships with spokespersons can crash and burn. There is always the potential risk for crisis and controversy in associating a brand with an individual, regardless of who they are. When this happens it can truly be ugly, dragging a brand or business through a media controversy for days, months or even years.


Lance Armstrong.

Whether you are associated with a not-for-profit or a business, working with big or small name celebrities must be examined and monitored closely. Be leery of putting too much of the brand’s reputation in the hands of a spokesperson and always have a “crisis” plan should a controversy arise. Weigh the value of the good coverage that you can potentially receive against the bad and hopefully, not the ugly.

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