Subway's First Work From New Agency Team Tries for an Emotional Connection

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Subway is adopting a slightly edgier vibe as it tries to bounce back from years of declining sales and negative headlines, rolling out a first commercial from its new Dentsu Aegis Network agency team that's risqué enough, at least, to require editing a curse word out of the song.

The sandwich chain needs to forge more of "an emotional connection" with its customers, says Chief Advertising Officer Chris Carroll.

"We're missing their daily consideration to come in our restaurants," he says.

Large text in the ad cues viewers to "make it big," "make it epic" and so on, as tiny print encourages them not to attempt some things being shown, like performing in a band from the back of moving truck. "In life and in food, don't take what you are given," text reads.

Subway's new slogan, "Make It What You Want," appears at the end of the 60-second spot, which is set to debut during Thursday night's Olympics broadcast on NBC.

It's the first campaign from "The Franchise @ Dentsu Aegis Network North America," a moniker even longer than the name of any of Subway's footlong subs. Subway picked the team in late 2017 and says the work is being handled by teams at Dentsu including Carat NY, McGarryBowen New York, Carat Canada and DentsuBos.

Carroll hopes the new campaign gives Subway a memorable message.

"I don't think we've had a cohesive story and I don't think we've done a good job of creating a connection with our consumers," says Carroll, who returned to Subway in 2015 after working on its marketing from 1999 to 2005. "You know a Coke ad, you know a Nike ad, you know a Geico ad."

Subway also doesn't have the emotional pull that some other restaurant chains do, even though it has thousands more shops than McDonald's or any other rival in North America. Subway's last year of positive sales growth in the U.S. appears to have been back in 2013. The company doesn't report its own sales, but reports from industry research firms such as Technomic suggest declines in the last four years.

"They've been down," Carroll acknowledges, " but we're really confident we're turning the corner on that now."

Subway has remodeled about 150 restaurants so far with digital menu boards, ordering kiosks and a more contemporary look. It's set to introduce a new loyalty program in the spring and is testing delivery as it tries to stay relevant with existing customers and woo others.

After all, some consumers still associate Subway with longtime spokesman Jared Fogle, who was sentenced in 2015 for more than 15 years in prison after admitting to receiving child pornography and paying for sex with minors. Subway has tried to move on under Suzanne Greco, sister of founder Fred DeLuca, who died in 2015. But the reality is that there are a lot of other similar value plays (including pretty much every fast-food chain out there) and sandwich plays (hello, Jimmy John's, Jersey Mike's and so on).

The new campaign comes as Subway has been promoting $4.99 Footlongs. That push exposed tensions between the marketing team and franchisees. Karlin Linhardt, Subway's North American senior marketing VP, left in December after just eight months on the job as media reports suggested franchisees were upset about the $4.99 deal eating into their profits. Subway is still looking for Linhardt's successor, says Carroll.

While there was some uncertainty about the Footlong deal, most locations are executing that promotion "flawlessly," Carroll says. The $4.99 Footlongs will remain until something else Subway is testing performs better. The brand wants to ensure there's always some "everyday affordable option," he says.

"It's not that we'll walk away from value but it can't be the only thing we stand for," says Carroll.

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