Subway cans schtick to focus on food in its creative

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Any comic will tell you that once you have to explain a joke, it's not funny. So after Subway Restaurants used the Super Bowl to air a 60-second TV spot to explain the joke of its 4-month-old "It's OK, I had Subway" campaign, Chris Carroll is doing the same thing Johnny Carson would have done: Move on.

"The strategy was dead right, and the campaign had potential, but [we] let the joke overtake the strategy, said Mr. Carroll, VP-marketing for the Subway Franchisee Advertising Fund Trust.

Subway, at the forefront of the healthy eating trend, tried to underscore that positioning with the cheeky campaign designed to sell the notion that by making the sandwiches part of a regular diet, one could get way with occasionally eating badly. But few got the punch line. In the seven spots that Fallon, Minneapolis, created in its debut campaign for the No. 4 restaurant chain, over-the-top scenes showed people indulging in bad behavior that overshadowed the message. In one, a man washes his car in a cheerleader's uniform and in another a doctor tricks a patient into thinking he has a terminal illness.

The spots broke in late September for the Doctor's Associates-owned chain, but by Dec. 20 Mr. Carroll said he knew the strategy wouldn't work. "You can't fix a campaign after that," he said. "We were in enough markets where we had to bite the bullet and end the campaign."

He used the wide audience of the Super Bowl to rectify the situation with the "Misunderstanding" spot. "I thought it was a great way to finish the campaign," Mr. Carroll said. The spots show bad behavior like a waitress pouring coffee in the lap of a poor tipper, as the voice-over explains that eating Subway "helps make up for eating bad, not being bad."

"There's just no question the idea is too absurd and complicated for most people to understand," said Al Ries, chairman, Ries & Ries. "I don't think the strategy was sound. Subway is a serious sandwich. They obviously are doing it to be funny, but I think it undermines their serious message."

Since Subway has grown from a hard-to-recognize brand to a category leader with more units than McDonald's in the past four years, its creative will reflect its new stature. Food will be the hero.

"The more simple solution our creative can present that, the easier it's going to be to move the brand," said Mr. Carroll, adding that consumers responded well to the straightforward reminder that they have to eat better and Subway has a good-tasting way to do that.

David Lubars, president of Subway's shop, Publicis Groupe's Fallon, Minneapolis, believes the agency has landed on a new context to move the campaign forward within the marketer's culture and values. "It will have wit to it, but it will have a different kind of wit."

While Mr. Carroll was mum on details of the creative expected to bow in April, directionally, the idea is simple. "It will be all about consumers and their experiences with food," he said. "Our product tasted good but there was never this emotional connection to answer why make [Subway] part of my life. What this work is going to do is not only demonstrate that, but give people a reason to believe it."

One thing's for sure, he said. "We don't need jokes, schtick or stupid humor."

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