Many brands base their marketing and publicity strategies on a public spokesperson. Lincoln has Matthew McConaughey. Priceline has William Shatner of Star Trek fame. Wendy’s used its CEO, Dave Thomas before his death. Men’s Warehouse used its founder, George Zimmer until he was ousted from the company. Very often the brand becomes identified with its spokesperson. To the public, the spokesperson equals the brand, its products and values. A brand’s reputation rises or falls with its spokesperson.
Subway, the restaurant chain is finding the downside of having a spokesperson as its public face. Jared Fogle shot to fame when his story of losing over 200 pounds went public. Fogle based his weight loss on visiting a Subway restaurant and ordering a low-fat sandwich. From that sandwich on, he dropped more than 200 pounds in about a year while eating Subway’s turkey subs and veggie subs with no mayonnaise and cheese. When Subway learned of his story, he became the face of Subway promoting their healthy alternatives to fast food. His story became the Subway story. Consumers identified with his everyman story and could relate to his weight struggle. Franchise owners reported increased sales when commercials and other promotional material featuring Fogle ran. All told he made over 50 television commercials for the chain. The company hyped him as the perfect family man whose values were those of Subway. To the public, Fogle and Subway were one and the same.
On July 7th, that perception became a nightmare for Subway. The FBI, Indiana State Police and the U.S. Postal Service raided Fogle’s home seizing electronic equipment with the clear implication from media reports that he was suspected of being involved in child pornography. A Florida woman came forward and said that Fogle had made remarks to her that were so inappropriate and shocking that she had contacted law enforcement officials. This happened two months after Russell Taylor, the former executive director of the Jared Foundation, which Fogle started to raise awareness to and combat childhood obesity, was arrested on federal child pornography charges. Fogle has not been arrested and his attorney issued a statement saying he is cooperating with authorities. Overnight, Fogle became the punch line for late night comedians with Subway included in the jokes. There was also a sense of public revulsion.
Subway issued a statement expressing shock at the events that had unfolded. Then the restaurant chain went further and announced that they were suspending it relationship with Fogle but they were not terminating it.
The question for Subway is what do they do next?
- They need to terminate their relationship with Fogle straight out. Whether Fogle is cleared or not, he is damaged goods and will remain so. Comedians will continue to joke about him and if Subway remains connected with him, Subway will be included in those jokes. There are three things people cannot fully recover from – scandals involving race, animals, and children. The sooner Subway formally severs all ties with Fogle, the better for the company.
- Develop a new branding strategy that doesn’t focus on any single person but rather on the company’s food and brand. Or if they want a person as the spokesperson have that person be Suzanne Greco, Subway’s president and sister of founder and CEO Fred DeLuca,
- Refresh the look of Subway and introduce new menu items with the new strategy the company is launching.
- Support organizations that battle exploitation of children.
- Develop a crisis communications strategy and have it in place if and when Fogle is indicted that separates the company totally from Fogle and condemns such actions that he may have committed.
The Jared Fogle/Subway story is a cautionary tale for a brand becoming to identified with its spokesperson. The important thing to remember when using a spokesperson as the face of the brand, the brand’s fortunes becomes tied with that person for both good and bad.