Last September, Subway released an onslaught of ads smearing McDonalds. Between TV, Organic Social, Paid Social, Email, Building-sized murals, there wasn’t a marketing technique left unused. This was a campaign with more in common with political attack ads than the typical easy-going fast food ads on TV.
The campaign started slow. Two ads showed a Ronald McDonald doppelgänger chilling on the beach with Subway in hand. A simple idea to undercut McDonalds’s image.
Very contained, yet the third ad took no prisoners.
It displayed what looked like McDonalds’s golden arches performing a heart monitor-like motion accompanied by the words "Burger after burger after burger…"
Then, the arches flatlined. Viewers. Were. Outraged.
Subway warned the world of death by McDonalds. And to be fair, cardiologists and nutritionists almost universally support this message, as blunt as it is.
Yet, this was an emotionally charged advertisement. Nobody cared about the logistics of the burn. It burned. And ironically, after the message of death by cholesterol, Subway gave their cheesesteak (high in cholesterol) a lot of screen time as a substitute for burgers. Again, logistics weren’t important. Subway was taking a risk, feeding on McDonalds’s unhealthy reputation in an attempt to rebrand as trendy.
It makes sense that Subway would do this. In recent years, Subway’s sales have been down since the very public demise of former spokesman Jared Fogle, Subway’s previously perfect, neighborly, healthy spokesperson. Subway recognized their need to pivot the operation. The company needed a new look and attitude. From new uniforms to updated restaurants (with self-order kiosks, mobile payment options, an app, and a pre-ordered pickup area) this was all part of the corporation’s Fresh Forward initiative. Subway jumped into their new millennial friendly "Make it what you want" brand, a slogan noticeably similar to Burger King’s former "Have it your way".
Subway’s advertisements changed from ‘familiar and wholesome’ to 'shock and awe.' Their first series of TV commercials and Social Media Marketing in February consisted of millennials doing a wide range of cool things with Subway in hand. Synchronized roller skating with Subway, snowboarding with Subway, throwing footlongs as footballs. You get the point. The commercials were fun, they showed the range of submarine sandwich options available, and they showed the range of young people who ate their subs.
Then, during the World Cup, the corporation dropped a bizarre, three-day campaign consisting of in-your-face, subliminal messaging. This campaign covered a lot of space.
In Chicago, Subway had giant images of subs projected on buildings, 3D chalk art of meatball subs, huge veggie-loaded footlong images crafted in sand. The company had 6 second Youtube ADs, most notably one with a UFO abducting a Subway footlong from a herd of sandwiches. There were Instagram filters with UFOs, blinking Subs memes on Facebook, GIFs of Dinosaurs eating footlongs on Twitter (during the opening weekend of Jurassic World) and cryptic email messages which read "Seeing Subs?" After Subway’s three-day effort to entice even the shortest of attention spans, they released 15-second multiplatform ads saying, "You’re not crazy, you’re hungry. Feed your SUBconscious here." This odd, attention grabbing campaign
Of course, this odd campaign was not the company’s end game! It was a move towards their check mate. At this point, Subway was ready to get go deeper into their Millennial-focused campaign. They wanted to get their hands dirty.
*Cue McDonalds slander*
With the rise of social media has come the rise of social media roast battles. Twitter and other social media platforms have laid the foundation for people to call out adversaries at a moment’s notice in front of the world and Millennials love it
Wendy's picked up on this early with Twitter persona who calls out other fast food chains, notably McDonalds in 2017.
McDonald’s Announcement: "Today we’ve announced that by mid-2018, all Quarter Pounder burgers at the majority of our restaurants will be cooked with fresh beef."
Wendy’s Response: "@McDonalds So you’ll still use frozen beef in MOST of your burgers in ALL of your restaurants? Asking for a friend."
Wendy’s goal was to gain buzz and they did that. Subway saw an opportunity to gain buzz and call out a competitor in millennial fashion on a larger scale with the flatlining commercial. They undoubtedly knew they would experience backlash from it.
A lot of people didn’t like a fast food chain telling them they would die if they kept eating food from a different fast food chain. And, a lot of people took to the internet to express their concerns and complaints. Subway responded to as many upset users as they could, expressing remorse and hope that their customers would keep coming back. According to Sprout Social, "29% of consumers are more likely to go to a competitor if they’re ignored when expressing distain on social." Subway made sure to respond to its consumers, but did they do enough?
Bottom line: Subway got attention. More and more, every day, attention, no matter if it’s positive or negative, is becoming a priority in marketing. Attention matters. The jury is still out on whether negative advertising taints sales, but buzz-worthy content is always a means toward that goal. Via TV, social media, YouTube, email, print, sand art, and more, Subway created a multi-layered marketing plan that popped. They hurt some feelings on the way, but it wasn’t too serious. They didn’t attack the morals of Americans. They just attacked a rival. Of course, they have their critics, but people those critics were talking about Subway after the campaign. Maybe there really isn’t such a thing as bad publicity?