Subway’s Footlong Fiasco

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 22, 2013 – 6:02 AM

In the age of social media, a corporate crisis can originate in unexpected places.

Last Tuesday, the fast food behemoth Subway found itself in a global mess when an Australian teenager named Matt Corby posted a photo to Facebook of the “SUBWAY FOOTLONG” he had purchased in Perth. The problem? It measured only 11 inches.

Subway 11 inches

The photo quickly went viral, racking up more than 100,000 likes on Corby’s Facebook page. Subway Australia did the right thing by responding the next day.

Unfortunately, they offered this ludicrous response:

Subway Footlong Facebook Posting

I’m willing to bet that the second paragraph was written (or influenced) by an attorney. Who else could come up with the sentence, “Footlong is…not intended to be a measurement of length”?

As often happens when lawyers dominate a crisis response, their words failed to meet the public “smell test” and were greeted with widespread derision. While their statement might help protect Subway’s legal flank (similar photos of short Subway Footlongs have popped up in other cities), it has fanned the flames of the crisis instead of extinguishing them, unnecessarily prolonging the length and severity of the crisis.

Plus, there’s a major message disconnect here, since the first two paragraphs stand in opposition to one another. Either the sub didn’t meet their standards and should measure 12 inches, or the name “footlong” is intended to be “descriptive,” and isn’t supposed to measure 12 inches. Both paragraphs can’t be true.

Subway’s lame excuse is akin to a car company saying “24 miles per gallon isn’t intended as a measurement of distance,” or an NFL stadium chief saying “100 yards isn’t intended to measure a specific distance.” Such statements are not only laughable, but immediately squander the credibility a company relies upon and desperately needs in a crisis.

Worse, as reporters begin digging into the details, they’re learning about other negative stories regarding Subway. The New York Post, for example, reported that Subway shops “have sliced their cold-cut sizes by 25 percent in the past few months.” By not putting out the small crisis immediately with a credible response, Subway turned a one-inch nuisance into a mile-wide disaster.

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Comments (6)

  1. By Erik Pelton:

    This ill advised response for Subway is further complicated by the fact that the company is trying to claim trademark rights (in the US at least) in the word FOOTLONG for sandwiches, and has no doubt spent a lot of money on those efforts. I personally believe that they will not prevail in the trademark claim. For more, see:

  2. By Rich:

    Brad – thanks for this post as I didn’t follow all the coverage beyond Day 1 of the story. You are right and now it will be interesting to see if they lose any sales in coming months. When a colleague asked me my opinion (on Twitter) when the story broke, I tweeted that one inch of bread won’t lose customers like me but if they started reducing my turkey portions, they’d have a problem. And now, you’ve pointed to the NY Post story which says just that. So, yes, I could have lived without the inch of bread — but mess with my turkey/cheese and you’ve lost my trust. I think die-hard Subway fans won’t care but those who go there occasionally, like me, will probably consider other options now. PS..Many of us still purchase name brand cookies. chips and cereals in big boxes/bags only to be disappointed that manufacturers skimped on the portion.

  3. By Kim M:

    We have a subgroup that consistently produces messages similar to Subway’s second paragraph, and it scares the hell out of me because the issues they deal that often spark emotional responses and passion, yet their responses are coldly formal. Despite my attempts to convince them that the messaging needs to change, I’ve not seen appreciable progress. What does one do in that situation? Do I have to just let them fail horribly, assuming they’ll learn? (The problem with that, of course, is that it’s not them who’ll bear the brunt of the reaction, it’s my team.)

  4. By Steve W.:

    Agreed. But would be even more helpful to hear your (and others’) suggestions for what would’ve been a better response – one that would’ve quelled the thing.

  5. By JC Kreidel:

    Just goes to show accuracy is no longer a staple of doing business. Nor is common sense or truthfulness. When you set the standard by which you’re measured, making it a part of your actual name, you need to live up to your own yardstick … and in the rare instances that you don’t live up to it, you should offer explanation and show how you’re fixing it. Whether that’s making sure the ovens in Perth are calibrated or whatever. This will cost them a bit – maybe just embarrassment, but it could cost them on the bottom line, too, depending on how they continue to non-react. I’m just stunned that no one has succumbed to Seinfeld jokes on “shrinkage.”

  6. By Janet Thaeler:

    My favorite response to something like this was Taco Bell when accused if not using real hamburger in their tacos. Except it was a threat to sure, which this could also turn into.
    I’d do something like create a 1 inch slider type sandwich as a new item and give them out free for a day, hour,etc. Keep them on the menu and say not guaranteed to be exactly one inch, but guaranteed to taste great
    A tampon company created a we’re sorry video when they upset their fans.
    It was a hilarious video spoofing cheesy boy bands.
    Subway needed to do something to let their fans know they heard and to poke a little fun at .
    One fact that really bugged is that I read they deleted the post on their Facebook Page which is exactly where the issue should’ve been addressed first.

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