Special report: Marketing in Western Canada: Subway takes a bite out of winter

Subway raised awareness of its hot product line with a season-specific campaignSales, like the temperature, can dip alarmingly during January and February in Alberta, particularly for fast food restaurants that have the image of selling primarily cold sandwiches.That is the predicament...

Subway raised awareness of its hot product line with a season-specific campaign

Sales, like the temperature, can dip alarmingly during January and February in Alberta, particularly for fast food restaurants that have the image of selling primarily cold sandwiches.

That is the predicament in which franchisees of the Subway chain in southern Alberta have found themselves since 1988, when the first restaurants were established there.

Poor December sales were accepted as inevitable given that submarine sandwiches are not part of most people’s traditional holiday fare, but there was no good reason that January and February should be so weak: Subway has quite a variety of hot subs, including the meatball, pizza, Subway melt, and steak ‘n cheese sandwiches.

The problem was that despite having about 70 restaurants in southern Alberta, the Subway hot product line still had fairly low public awareness.

The franchisees, led by the five-member Franchisee Advertising Fund Board that controls a communal pool of roughly $1 million, recognized that letting those two months drift by was unnecessarily damaging to sales and decided to advertise heavily during that period.

Usually Subway franchisees are dependent on advertising developed by the head office in Connecticut, but about twice a year there is a local window of opportunity to do more regionalized marketing.

The board, together with The Venture Group, a Calgary-based ad agency, developed a strategy that would capitalize on the qualities of the season, rather than ignore them.

‘We wanted the opportunity to take the budget, which is good, but not huge, and put [the advertising] on at a time of year we knew we could get better media value,’ says Arlene Dickinson, president of The Venture Group.

‘We also wanted to educate the consumer [about] the hot products.’

Last year’s 10-week campaign revolved around four limited time hot Italian subs. A related contest offered the chance to win one of four trips for two to Italy to customers who completed in-store ballots.

The creative was based on a ‘Lean on Subway for a trip to Italy’ theme and showed a Subway franchise leaning like the Tower of Pisa.

Another ad told consumers to ‘Make Subway your meal ticket to Italy.’

Radio spots contained irreverent Italian lessons.

‘The goal was, of course, to drive sales, and get people coming through the stores, and for a long-term effect, to let people know we’re out there,’ says Debbie Daffe, the owner of two franchises, and chair of the F.A.F. Board.

The campaign, which ran in print, and on billboards and radio, increased sales by a whopping 30% over the same period in 1993.

‘I attribute it all to the advertising campaign,’ Daffe says. ‘Last winter, [the temperature] was 30 [degrees] below [zero] all the time.’

So successful was the new campaign that it was picked up by about eight markets in the u.s.

More amazing, however, is the success of this year’s campaign promoting the whole family of hot sandwiches, which has so far increased sales in southern Alberta Subways by an additional 30%.

‘We decided to continue on the same theme, and make it an annual event that Calgarians would start to look forward to,’ Dickinson says.

To allow for tv advertising in the budget, the campaign has been shortened to eight weeks. This year’s contest offers four trips for two to Jamaica.

Questions on the ballots, designed to help build a direct mail database, allow Subway to determine the proportion of new traffic through the stores, which Daffe says is up considerably.

The outdoor creative for the campaign includes a surfing Sub Man character decked out in sunglasses and summer garb, promoting the ‘Sun-Seeking Sub Contest.’

tv and radio capitalize on a ‘What’s hot and what’s not’ theme.

What’s hot is the Subway selection of subs, while what’s not includes the hula hoop, an Oom Pah-Pah band, bad poetry (‘I gave my love a nougie…’), and yodeling.

One tv spot is a send-up of the popular Blind Melon’s tune No Rain, which has a video featuring a free-spirited girl in a bee costume cavorting in a field.

In the ‘What’s not hot’ category of the Subway spot, a similarly clad chunky girl fails at an uplifting tap dance routine.

While absurd, the advertising is part of an attempt by Subway to establish a different positioning from many of its fast food rivals that cater more to children.

‘We’re trying for a fresh food and healthy eating appeal,’ Dickinson says. ‘We want to get across that our product line is diverse, and our food is healthy.’.

The most essential aspect of the advertising, however, remains the need for higher volume in the franchises during the coldest months.

‘We need to remind people that we exist and we have a hot product for the wintertime,’ Daffe says.

It is that concern on the part of the owners that Venture says it keeps in mind whenever it helps develop a campaign.

‘We are very results-driven in the advertising we’ve done for Subway,’ Dickinson says.

‘We have to be conscious of what their sales figures are, and we have to be aware that any promotion we do must translate into sales,’ she says.