Subway turns to pro athletes (but amateur spokespeople) for brand refresh

Who: Subway Canada, with dentsumcgarrybowen for strategy and creative. Production by The Deli (directed by Jerk Store), with Carat for media and MKTG for athlete relations. Veritas for PR.

What: “Eat Fresh Refresh,” a national campaign for the QSR brand featuring two popular young Canadian athletes in snowboarder Mark McMorris and Montreal tennis star Leylah Fernandez. It plays off the brand’s longstanding “Eat Fresh” tagline, while informing consumers that the Subway experience has been updated through new sandwiches, toppings, etc.

When & Where: The campaign will run from April 25 to June 22. It’s a major marketing push that spans multiple channels including TV, online and social platforms including TikTok and Spotify, as well as out-of-home.

Why: The campaign follows a comprehensive brand refresh for Subway that includes new sandwiches, new sauces, toppings, and breads. The company introduced the refresh in the U.S. last year, describing it as its biggest update in more than a decade.

At the time, it was a chain desperately in need of a refresh. It had not only seen its sandwich dominance steadily eroded by a wave of challengers, but also faced a damning class-action lawsuit in the U.S. which alleged that its tuna sandwiches were “completely bereft of tuna as an ingredient.”

So there was work to be done from a brand perspective, particularly in such a competitive category. Subway Canada says the goal is to encourage guests to give its restaurants a try, especially those who haven’t visited lately, while also reiterating its commitment to quality Canadian ingredients.

“It’s reminding people how much they love Subway, and [urging] them to come back and try something new,” said dentsumcgarrybowen’s executive creative director, Caitlin Keeley. “And for those who [don’t have Subway] on their radar, to see there are fresh options.”

How: Like last year’s U.S. campaign, Subway Canada is using professional athletes to deliver the message about its refreshed menu. The U.S. ads featured some of the country’s best-known sports figures, including Steph Curry, Tom Brady and Serena Williams.

The creative idea in the U.S. was that there was so much news about the refreshed menu, it required multiple spokespeople to deliver all the information. Those ads were played for laughs, with the stars finding themselves abruptly cut off mid-sentence, or upstaged by one of their counterparts.

The Canadian creative has a slight tweak to that approach, presenting McMorris and Fernandez as pro athletes, but amateur spokespeople. That means flubbed lines, forced smiles, missing their mark, or awkwardly posing with one of the new menu items.

“Sometimes you’ll see a commercial where they try to make athletes be something they’re not, and it’s hard on them. They’re professionals at something else,” said Keeley. “You see these effortless things on TV, where someone picks up a thing and holds it, but it’s actually very hard. It’s hard to not look at the camera, or to hit your mark.”

Some actual flubs have been collected in a behind-the-scenes blooper reel that will appear on TikTok. “When we gave them the space to be themselves, and brought them in on the joke, they absolutely were at home in front of the camera,” said Keeley.

The Spotify ads employ a similar tactic, with Subway’s professional sandwich artists taking their best shot at being a voiceover artist. “As anyone who’s tried to record radio knows, being a voice actor is a very specific thing, so there’s some fun there too,” said Keeley.

Why McMorris and Fernandez? “They’re absolutely fresh and charming, and at the top of their game in their respective sports,” said Keeley. “We were pleased with the vibe.” Fernandez has also previously appeared in advertising for Google’s Pixel 6 phone, and signed an endorsement deal with Gatorade Canada last year.

And we quote: “The Eat Fresh Refresh is more than just updates to our menu; it’s about showing Canadians we listen and push ourselves to be better by elevating our products and guest experience.” — Doug Fry, country director, Subway Canada

Chris Powell