How Subway Canada Is Building Back Consumer Trust

After a string of controversies, the fast-food chain launched a campaign to refresh its image
(illustrations: Aysha Tengiz)

Subway was aiming to establish itself as a healthier alternative in a fast-food landscape of greasy burgers and sugary sodas by offering sandwich options with fresh-baked bread and vegetables; its slogan has been “Eat Fresh” since 2000. But in the past decade, Subway—especially in the U.S.—has experienced its fair share of bad press, including allegations about everything from the quality of its ingredients to its disgraced spokesperson, Jared Fogle. These incidents threatened to undermine Subway’s cross-border image as a wholesome food spot.

In 2014, sales started to decline due to competition from other chains that introduced healthier items, and a year later, Subway parted ways with Fogle—who famously lost more than 90 kilograms by eating Subway and exercising—after he pleaded guilty to engaging in sexual conduct with a minor and distributing child pornography. In 2016, Subway started closing locations; between 2018 and 2019, it shut more than 2,000 storefronts in the U.S.

And there was another issue: Questions about the quality of Subway’s chicken arose after a 2017 CBC investigation claimed the meat was actually only 50 per cent chicken and the rest was soy. Subway said the claims were “absolutely false” and sued the CBC for defamation.

The company wanted to make some changes, according to Lisa Mazurkewich, the head of marketing for Subway Canada. “There were some trust issues,” says Mazurkewich, explaining that “misinformation and unreliable studies” called into question the integrity of Subway’s ingredients. “We took it upon ourselves as an organization to refresh, looking at a lot of things, from the quality of our ingredients to our customer service.”

In October 2021, Subway Canada launched focus groups to learn what consumers thought of the brand. They found that while customers still had a lot of warmth and nostalgia for the chain, it was time for a new campaign to create some excitement and highlight the quality of its offerings.

So, in early 2022, Subway Canada launched its “Eat Fresh Refresh” campaign. It introduced new brand ambassadors, revamped menu items, like rice bowls, and upgraded ingredients, adding Canadian cheddar cheese and smashed avocado. For spokespeople, Subway selected a diverse group of athletes from across the country, including tennis star Leylah Fernandez, NHL player Mark Messier and Olympic sprinter Andre De Grasse.

“We were looking for partners who embody a healthy, balanced lifestyle,” says Mazurkewich. All the spokespeople, except Messier, who is 62, are in their 20s, as the brand’s intention is to target a younger Canadian audience.

As part of the campaign, to emphasize the quality of its new products, Subway is aiming its messaging toward Gen Z through Instagram, Twitch and experiential pop-ups. It is also using commercials and in-store menu boards. “We’re using as many proprietary platforms as possible to build back that trust,” says Mazurkewich, pointing to a 2022 ad with Messier.

In the 30-second spot, Messier, stationed in front of a refrigerator stuffed with colourful veggies in a squeaky-clean restaurant, says “fresh,” “refresh” and “refreshing” a total of seven times. Subway worked with four agencies—including ad firm dentsuMB and Veritas Communications for social media and PR—to make sure the idea of freshness came through in the commercial. Mazurkewich says the campaign has been a success, both in terms of sales and customer reaction.

For companies that experience similar damage to their public image, Mazurkewich recommends they invest in consumer research to thoroughly understand the customer and their needs. Once they identify areas of improvement, they can make changes. Then they can use the right medium—which might include brand ambassadors—to connect with their target demographic. “We tapped top Canadian athletes, who helped us authentically tell our story,” Mazurkewich says. “Their love for the brand helped us connect with consumers.”

This article appears in print in the winter 2023 issue of Canadian Business magazine. Buy the issue for $7.99 or better yet, subscribe to the quarterly print magazine for just $40.

Mathew Silver
Mathew Silver
Mathew Silver is a Toronto-based freelancer. He writes about a little bit of everything—business, sports, arts and culture, whatever piques his interest.