Carrie Walsh joined Subway as CMO of North America in October 2019. Not even six months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and, amid all the challenges that brought, the fast-food chain found itself battling fishy claims about its tuna sandwiches as well as what Walsh refers to as “a transformational journey.”
Walsh, who oversees Subway’s U.S. marketing and culinary teams, says that while the pandemic impacted the restaurant industry in totality, one positive change it brought about was the accelerated growth and evolution of Subway’s digital platforms.
One aim of Subway from the beginning has been ensuring it can react in real time to whatever customers need. To keep employees and consumers safe, the chain launched Contactless Curbside pickup through Subway’s app and website.
“We leaned into our partnership with third-party delivery partners and worked in parallel developing our own direct delivery option,” adds Walsh. “The whole point was reacting and meeting our guests where they are.”
Just as Subway was getting on top of operating seamlessly during the pandemic, a new road block popped up. In January, a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California alleged Subway’s tuna contains absolutely no tuna. Then, in June, a report by The New York Times found, based on an independent study, no tuna DNA in Subway tuna sandwiches.
In response, Subway wants consumers to know it serves 100% wild-caught tuna; and that the plaintiffs abandoned their claim that Subway’s tuna product contains no tuna after being presented with information about Subway’s tuna and the reliability of DNA testing (the plaintiffs have since amended their claim as to whether it is “100% sustainably caught skipjack and yellowfin tuna.”
“It has been important for us to be out in front with the truth, which is that our tuna is tuna. Period,” says Walsh.
To get that message out, Subway’s CEO John Chidsey has been conducting interviews with media outlets such as CNN and Fox Business.
“He was able to confidently say our restaurants are using 100% wild-caught cooked tuna,” said Walsh. “That is the simple truth.”
Subway also launched a microsite, SubwayTunaFacts.com, which “takes you through the science and brings to light why some of that DNA testing is unreliable and shares facts about our tuna being 100% wild caught,” Walsh adds. Subway is also directly answering questions about its tuna from social media users.
A total refresh
Just a couple of weeks later, Subway announced in July that it was improving upon almost every core menu item at U.S. restaurants and introducing important digital upgrades to “elevate the guest experience,” according to a statement.
More than 20 items have been updated and the menu now includes 11 new and improved ingredients, six all-new or returning sandwiches and four revamped signature sandwiches.
Subway is calling the ongoing campaign Eat Fresh Refresh, with which its PR AOR Current Global has been assisting. So far, the campaign has involved what the chain refers to as “unprecedented moments,” such as Subway restaurants across the country closing for a Refresh Break on July 12.
Additionally, the Subway app has been updated to feature a new dashboard, improved ordering flow and insight into out-of-stock items with further updates planned for the fall.
Subway Delivery also rolled out nationwide in select areas, allowing customers to place delivery orders through the Subway app and Subway.com.
Walsh says the negative stories about Subway’s tuna had nothing to do with the timing of the Eat Fresh Refresh campaign’s launch.
When Walsh first started at the company, she began looking at consumer insights and data around opportunities for Subway to improve its brand and deliver a better experience to customers. But the pandemic really gave the company a chance to step back and see how it could make changes for the better.
Subway has been including its message about the tuna being 100% real within the Eat Fresh Refresh marketing push, but Walsh reiterates that’s not the focus of the campaign.
“We have changed a lot with Eat Fresh Refresh but the one thing we didn’t change is our tuna,” she notes.
Subway also held a giveaway of one million six-inch new Turkey Cali Fresh subs to the first 50 customers at each of its locations to encourage people to try the changes. But thousands of free sandwiches went unclaimed, according to media reports.
Asked about if she has any takeaways from that part of the campaign, Walsh notes the main goal was to share the store changes.
“We wanted to do something we hadn’t done before,” she says. “We were confident in the changes, so we wanted folks to see what was new. What we gave away exceeded our expectations and we were excited folks were able to sample our Turkey Cali Fresh subs, which have a ton of the new ingredients.”
Walsh did not clarify how many sandwiches were given away.
“The changes we made in early July are the biggest menu changes we have made as a brand,” says Walsh. “But I want to emphasize that Eat Fresh Refresh isn’t about what we just launched. It’s an ongoing mission and transformation for the brand to continue to get better.”
Walsh points out that Subway wants to “refresh” different aspects of its brand to ultimately drive relevance and engagement with consumers.
The campaign launched with a “big bang” says Walsh, adding that it’s one of Subway’s biggest media investments ever. Included with the campaign are TV commercials, voiced by Charles Barkley, and starring sporting legends Serena Williams, Stephen Curry, Tom Brady and Megan Rapinoe. The ads are complemented by social and digital content.
“We leaned into some talent we think embodies this idea that in order to be fresh you have to refresh,” says Walsh. “We are going to continue to bring top talent into the campaign as we move forward.”
However, some Subway customers are not happy Rapinoe has been included in the chain’s ad campaign, after the soccer star kneeled during the Tokyo Olympics to protest racism. The backlash also involves misinformation circulating on social media, including false allegations that Rapinoe “stomped” on the American flag.
A Piplsay survey found 45% of U.S. consumers want Subway to respect public sentiment and drop Rapinoe as a brand ambassador, while 36% say the brand should respect her opinions. A Subway spokesperson says the company “doesn’t have anything to share” on this topic.
Being more social
Subway is also using its social platforms to engage old and new fans with its new menu and create a two-way dialogue with them, Walsh explains.
This summer, Subway has been running a campaign on social media called “sad lunches,” in which it recommends some of its new sandwiches to fans “who tweet their sad lunches to us,” Walsh says.
Subway will continue to reinforce the changes it has made on its Twitter and TikTok channels and will “surprise” consumers with how it brings those efforts to life across its creative and marketing messaging.
Previously, Walsh was SVP of marketing for The Michaels Companies and Susan G. Komen; and before that she was Pizza Hut’s CMO in the U.S. Earlier in her career, Walsh worked at PepsiCo for seven years in various roles.
One key learning Walsh has gleaned from her years in marketing is that companies must keep the consumer at the center of their core brand positioning and purpose and find the intersection of those two things to differentiate their brand.
“How do you take what your brand is uniquely good at and understand the needs of your guests and innovate in that space?” says Walsh. “Subway was positioned forever as the better choice in fast food. We intersect that with what we see during the pandemic or every day in terms of the needs of our guests on the food front and digital front, that is where we are innovating and spending our time.”
This story first appeared on PRWeek US.