Subway: Subway Coopts Other Brands’ Ads to Make Room for All Its Menu Updates


Campaign Summary

Subway had so much brand news to convey to consumers after its menu refresh, that it had to break into ads for other brands, like Beats headphones, to get it all across.



Historically, Subway had carved out a unique position within the QSR market as a better-for-you option versus competitors like McDonald's, but the competition had changed. A new category had emerged — "Fast Casual" — "with a range of healthier, more premium options. Instead of behaving like a category leader when new players emerged, Subway had gone quiet amid numerous PR crises.

With sales losses prolonged and traffic down, the business was in dire need of driving both desirability and purchase. Winning in QSR was no longer enough. Subway needed to go against the emerging competition by addressing the real gaps in fast-casual: quality and crave-worthiness. Subway needed to make a big change and announce it in a big way. The campaign needed to drive awareness of "a refreshed Subway" and convert that awareness to trial.

Specifically, the four key objectives for the Subway "Eat Fresh Refresh" campaign were to:

  • Announce the refresh and get Subway back into culture to raise awareness of the "Eat Fresh Refresh" position.
  • Get people to believe Subway was improving for the better.
  • Reverse the negative sales trend by driving trial of the refreshed Subway.
  • Drive increased frequency among guests who had become lighter or who had lapsed from the brand.

Target Audience:

To turn around the Subway business, it wasn't enough to go after a narrow audience. Subway had to succeed in bringing the light and lapsed users back through the doors. Subway was running the risk of becoming a "lost love," especially amid the 2019-2020 traffic declines. It was time to ignite the latent love among all guests. Subway didn't want to change the perception of a few, but rather of everyone. So, Subway went after the 64 million QSR and fast-casual frequenters. Consumers had grown skeptical of the category, being keenly aware of the rebranding efforts among competitors that weren't accompanied by product reinvention.

Creative Strategy:

Subway launched its refreshed approach with media and creative, highlighting so much that was new that the brand couldn't fit it all into any one ad. Indeed, Subway needed a record 230-foot-tall billboard in Times Square to fit in all the food changes.

All campaign efforts were anchored in the core belief that "you have to refresh to be fresh." Subway launched high-profile, celebrity-led spots to tell the whole refresh story, handpicking placements in programs to maximize equity.

Subway surrounded consumers throughout their day and when the brand couldn't fit the content into its own ads, it coopted other brands' ad spaces. From intercepting Serena Williams Beats Headphones TV ads to breaking into real TV ads for local businesses, Subway created continuous spikes of content to permeate culture.


For many, the pandemic prompted the re-evaluation of everything, media habits included. There was a dramatic increase in media consumption, especially among Subway's audience, who were heavily plugged into digital content, shifting away from linear in favor of streaming. Subway had the challenges of reaching this mass audience and appearing to be everywhere, while being surgical enough to effectively manage its budget.


Overall Campaign Execution:

Eat Fresh Refresh was a campaign about second chances and re-invention, celebrating the multitude of improvements Subway had made to pivot toward the consumers of the future. This campaign (and brand update) was the biggest that Subway had undergone in thirty years, touching everything from food to ingredients to customer experience.

To spread Subway's Refresh message in a compelling way, the brand adopted a "surround sound" approach. This approach was designed to make the Refresh campaign endemic to wherever consumers went, providing an authentic and all-surrounding communications environment. Subway accomplished this feat by surrounding key cultural moments in TV, like the NBA finals and NFL football, and by working closely with partners to truly embody the campaign and spill out of the ads to "hijack" other media spaces and environments.

Subway launched with high-profile, celebrity-led spots, served sequentially to tell the whole refresh story. There was so much new brand news, it was too much for any one celebrity to tell without getting cut off.

On the cusp of the transformation of the brand's menu, Subway coordinated the early closure of the entire system the night before the launch — taking a moment for store teams to jumpstart excitement and morale.

On launch day, Subway revealed its all-new Subway ingredients on Good Morning America and unveiled a record-setting 230-foot-tall billboard in Times Square, along with long-form print advertising.

To promote the refresh even further, Subway kicked off the Million Sub Giveaway, inviting past customers to experience the new, refreshed Subway for free.

In addition, Subway was the first QSR to leverage Snapchat's Landmark AR experience at the Statue of Liberty, the Capital, and the TCL Chinese Theater, leveraging the technology to allow consumers to virtually transform their food into a sub.

Subway surrounded on-the-go consumers with custom content integrations on gas station TV and refreshed social feeds by coopting fashion, gaming, and sports influencer content in breakthrough ways.

Business Impact (including context, evaluation, and market impact)

The success of the Refresh campaign has been unprecedented for Subway. Within the first full month Subway was already exceeding weekly sales records (and that sales impact continued to climb throughout the year).

Consumers started seeing Subway in a refreshed light, seeing it, that is, as more relevant, innovative, and high-quality. These shifts in perception have also led to a dramatic increase in consumers wanting to revisit in the future.

More specifically, the campaign generated:

  • Over three billion earned impressions from social coverage and 3,000 media stories — including 68,000 social shares
  • 1.9 billion paid and owned media impressions during the launch period
  • A 30 percent lift in unaided ad recall compared to figures preceding the launch
  • A lift of over 58 percent in future visit consideration

The brand also observed the following lifts in key brand attributes:

  • A 46 percent lift in "updated"
  • A 43 percent lift in "innovative"
  • A 29 percent lift in "high quality"
  • A 50 percent lift in "better than expected" delivery on experience
  • A 23 percent lift in "overall satisfaction"

Additionally, overall U.S. average restaurant sales were up over 4 percent during the early campaign period, and the top 5,000 stores experienced a 33 percent increase in sales.

At launch, Subway achieved its highest single-day sales in five years and average U.S. restaurant sales were the strongest they'd been since 2014. Subway beat sales targets for the year by $1.4 billion.

Categories: | Industries: | Objectives: Product/Services Launch | Awards: Best in Show, NA Gold Winner