Subway: Changing brand perceptions with celebrities

Subway is in the midst of a wide expansion drive across the UK and Ireland. With its 41,000 stores having already ousted McDonald’s to become the biggest restaurant chain in the world, the franchise plans to almost double its number of stores in the UK by 2020.

Whilst this plan is Subway’s response to growing demand for affordable and healthier food on-the-go, over the last few years the brand has struggled increasingly with perceptions of its brand. This can be attributed to increased media scrutiny over its ingredients, such as the Daily Mail uncovering higher calories and salt in your average ‘Sub’ than a Big Mac, or its following of controversial halal slaughtering guidelines.

Therefore, to ensure continued successful growth, Subway has acknowledged its need to address these controversial brand perceptions, and is implementing a strategy involving celebrity endorsements to do so – with England and Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge appearing in its latest TV advertisement:

So how does getting a celebrity on board help change peoples’ opinions about a brand, in this case Subway? Fritz Heider’s ‘Balance Theory’ suggests that, as individuals, we constantly seek for consistency in our beliefs to maintain a psychological ‘balance’. Brands like Subway use this to their advantage, knowing that positive associations with popular celebrities can therefore ‘rub off’ on their brand. To put simply, if we like Daniel Sturridge, we are more likely to like Subway, simply to maintain this balance in our minds.

To explain in more depth, Heider suggests there are three components that each interact and create a balance or imbalance:

Subway Diagram 1

According to the ‘Balance Theory’, ‘balance’ is obtained if either there are:

  • Three positive relationships, OR
  • One positive relationship alongside two negative relationships.

Given that the celebrity endorsement cements one positive relationship between Daniel Sturridge and Subway (as he talks positively about Subway in the TV ad), to maintain this balance, the consumer must subconsciously decide whether they either like Daniel Sturridge and Subway OR dislike both components:

Subway Diagram 2

In selecting Daniel Sturridge as an endorser in the UK, Subway possess a national hero and uncontroversial figure who likely has a largely positive reputation amongst target consumers, therefore maximising potential for favourable perceptions transferring onto Subway. In line with this, Subway’s celebrity endorsers are localised by country, such as using Washington Redkins NFL quarterback, Robert Griffin III, in the US.

To conclude, the ‘Balance Theory’ goes further to explain why celebrities have been dropped by brands in the face of negative perceptions about that celebrity, such as Gillette ending its relationship with Tiger Woods in the wake of Woods’ adultery scandal. Had Gillette maintained his endorsement and therefore the positive relationship between him and its brand, if consumers’ perceptions of Woods are negative due to his adultery scandal – which is probable – the only way for to achieve balance would be to create a negative relationship with Gillette. Understandably, brands do not want to create a straight choice between the strength of opinions of their brand against probable negative associations with the celebrity endorser – hence why Gillette ended the endorsement:

Subway Diagram 3


One thought on “Subway: Changing brand perceptions with celebrities

  1. Pingback: Quorn: Market development | the Marketing Agenda

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