The chief marketing officer for the Subway sandwich chain has a cheeky rejoinder to complaints that his company is engaged in “ambush marketing” surrounding the Vancouver Games.
“McDonald’s is upset,” said Tony Pace, who oversees the Subway Franchisee Advertising Trust Fund, referring to a complaint from McDonald’s that Subway was trying to pass itself off as an official Olympic fast-food sponsor, though McDonald’s had bought those rights. “My reaction to the fact McDonald’s is upset? I’m lovin’ it,” Mr. Pace said, quoting the McDonald’s ad slogan.
Mr. Pace’s comments came in response to a question after his presentation on Thursday morning at a conference sponsored by the Association of National Advertisers. Mr. Pace was the lead-off presenter for the event, called the TV and Everything Video Forum, which took place at the Marriott Marquis hotel. McDonald’s and AT&T had complained last month to the United States Olympic Committee that Subway and Verizon Wireless were engaging in ambush marketing, called that when a company tries an end-run around a competitor’s exclusive sports-marketing deal.
McDonald’s was unhappy with commercials for Subway that show Michael Phelps, the Summer Games star who endorses Subway, swimming “where the action is this winter,” as an announcer says. From the animated map on which Mr. Phelps is swimming, it appears he is going someplace that begins with the letters “C-A-N” — apparently an allusion to Canada, as in the country where Vancouver, British Columbia, is located. “Michael has de facto become the face of the Olympics,” Mr. Pace said, which McDonald’s apparently considers a problem because Subway is “not an Olympic sponsor.”
Part of the reason Mr. Phelps is appearing in Subway spots now, Mr. Pace explained, is that endorsement agreements with Olympic athletes need to be continuous rather than concentrated during the Games in which the athletes compete. He said that in the past, deals with Winter Games athletes were undercut by the fact the stars would be seen in ads during and immediately after the Olympics but then “disappear for four years.”
Another question to Mr. Pace was on the subject of “celebrities and morals clauses” — a reference to the controversy last year when Mr. Phelps was apparently caught smoking marijuana. “You’ve got to be careful about who you associate with,” Mr. Pace said, but “fundamentally we think he’s a pretty good guy.” Research among consumers found that opinions of Mr. Phelps “went down a little bit” after the incident “but popped back up over time.” More important to Subway, Mr. Pace said, is whether the endorser is “really into our brand.”
He described a kind of test he gives potential endorsers: if he asks them their favorite Subway sandwich and they reply, “Uh, uh, tuna,” they are unlikely candidates for deals, but there is more potential if they respond with details about toppings and whether they want the sandwich toasted. Mr. Phelps is a fan of the brand, Mr. Pace said, along with the football analyst and actor Michael Strahan, another Subway endorser.
Mr. Pace also discussed in detail Subway’s philosophy regarding “branded message integration,” or incorporating the brand into the plots of TV series, live sports coverage and talk shows. The benefit is that if they are done well, he said, they become “part of the brand memory” going forward in a way that is more effective than even the best-liked commercials. Subway’s branded integrations include prominent roles in the NBC series “The Biggest Loser” and “Chuck,” as well as occasional appearances in segments of Jimmy Kimmel’s talk show on ABC and shout-outs to Subway during football coverage on Fox featuring Mr. Strahan as an analyst.
Although branded integrations are usually planned extensively, Mr. Pace said, marketers must understand they may need to relinquish some control. “You have to live with some things,” he said as a slide appeared on screen of a Subway stint on Mr. Kimmel’s show. “You don’t always love every piece of language on live TV,” he added, but on the other hand “you don’t want commercial language” because consumers could dismiss it as too much of a hard sell.
Another benefit of branded integrations is that they are “catalysts for social media,” Mr. Pace said, in that they generate much more discussion in places like Facebook and Twitter than conventional commercials can. “We sometimes Tweet about it ourselves,” he added.