Firehouse Subs Switches Ad Approach With New Agency

National Push Won't Include Founders

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Firehouse Subs is taking a different approach to its firefighter theme in advertising from its new agency, replacing its founding firemen brothers with a comedic character in its second year of national television advertising.

The company's first national TV push came in 2015 and included the founders and the tagline "Founded by Firemen." That effort was led by Zimmerman, its agency from 2009 until late 2015.

System sales rose in 2015, but the chain's first national campaign did not lead to the higher average unit volumes, or sales per location, that the chain was hoping for, according to Doug Reifschneider, VP-marketing. Firehouse announced Marc USA as its agency of record in December, following a search led by Select Resources International, which also handled the search that led it to pick Zimmerman years earlier.

Firehouse Subs Logo
Firehouse Subs Logo Credit: Firehouse Subs/Marc USA

Using an actor rather than the founders allows Firehouse to brag a little more about the brand in a campaign that is "character driven [and] food focused," said Mr. Reifschneider. Research suggested that using a third-party person to endorse a brand appeals to the audience the brand wants to attract, he said. For now, photos of the actor shown in the spots will not in appear in the restaurants, Mr. Reifschneider said.

It is a departure from the last work from Zimmerman. Those commercials ran as recently as December. One of the most recent ads showed the brothers describing the Smokehouse Beef & Cheddar Brisket sandwich and joking with each other. Personal touches in the past included radio commercials voiced by the founders and their father, and recorded in Co-Founder Chris Sorensen's Jacksonville, Fla. home studio.

Firehouse was founded in 1994 by brothers Chris and Robin Sorensen, who were both firefighters before they opened their first restaurant in Jacksonville. There are now more than 950 restaurants in 43 states and Puerto Rico, along with a single Canadian outpost, which opened in October.

Zimmerman "challenged us to spend more on advertising" and we "had a really good run," said Mr. Reifschneider, who has been with Firehouse since 2006. The results of the advertising done with Zimmerman softened in recent years, he said.

Firehouse's system sales reached about $665.5 million in 2015, Mr. Reifschneider said, aided by new restaurant openings.

Firehouse plans to spend $30 million on its advertising in 2016, up from about $27 million in 2015, Mr. Reifschneider said. The chain's spending pales in comparison to larger players in the sandwich and fast-casual areas of the industry in which it competes. Subway spent $532.6 million on measured media in 2014, according to Kantar Media. Now, Subway has its own new marketing featuring the son of a founder playing his father and promoting its $6 Footlongs. A previous push stressed the $5 price point.

Firehouse's new spots include the tagline "the hero of all subs." The company wants to promote the brand, not a particular product, as it tries to grow its national brand awareness, which stands at less than 50%. Its media plan has more prime time TV and focuses on "high quality" elements over quantity, Mr. Reifschneider said.

An upcoming digital spot has a bit of a play on the definition of the word "Bells" and the meaning of the word balls. Some people suggested the "Bells" spot should be aired on TV, while others associated with the chain thought it was a bit edgy, Mr. Reifschneider said. That video should start appearing via paid social media in March, followed by other videos.