Subway goes after McDonald's in burger boredom ads

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Wendy's is already pounding away at McDonald's in its commercials. Now new ads for Subway are using characters who look a lot like Ronald McDonald and his purple friend Grimace, apparently stepping out on their own chain.

"Consumers just get in habits and they go and have burgers," says Subway Chief Advertising Officer Chris Carroll. "Every now and then you might want to consider breaking the habit and going to Subway. That's really the whole strategy. We're reminding them they have choices."

Subway is actually pitting itself against the largest restaurant chain with somewhat unusual momentum. After four years of sales declines at Subway, according to external data (privately-held Subway doesn't disclose its sales), the sandwich chain once again appears to be growing.

Following the introduction of ads from a new creative agency earlier this year, along with offers including $4.99 subs, "we've seen our business turn positive," says Carroll. "We've had some tough years but we feel good that we've got the business turning north again."

The latest commercials escalate a push that started nearly two weeks ago with ads that mimic the look of McDonald's Golden Arches. In one of the new ads, the Ronald-esque character relaxes in a hammock on a beach, sipping a drink from Subway. A Subway steak sandwich rests on a table by his side.

In another, the Grimace doppelganger strolls the beach with a metal detector before Ronald's lookalike appears. "We could all use a break from the burger," the ads conclude.

"They're characters, we don't call them out by name," Carroll jokes when asked about the similarity to Ronald McDonald and Grimace.

The ads happen to come weeks after a new Wendy's spot that also takes aim at McDonald's, part of a separate line of attack against the larger chain.

Subway's work continues a string of new ads that began earlier this year with the "Make It What You Want" slogan. Subway has also been adding items such as wraps, as well as limited-time breads and sauces to the menu. There are plans for an "ultimate cheesy garlic bread" in mid-November, Carroll says.

And Subway is beginning to update its restaurants, spending $80 million over the next six months to refresh their look. The chain is footing the bill for the renovations, including new menu boards and uniforms, rather than making franchisees shell out thousands of dollars per store themselves.

The spots come from The Franchise at Dentsu Aegis Network, a team dedicated to Subway that won the chain's creative and media business in late 2017. They are set to run widely on broadcast TV and in digital media including social, though Subway restaurants won't do any McDonald's imitations. "Once they're there we don't want them thinking of anybody but us," says Carroll.

Subway has about 26,000 U.S. restaurants, while McDonald's has about 14,000. McDonald's, though has more than triple the U.S. systemwide sales of Subway, according to industry data from Technomic.

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