Upfronts Q&A: Subway CMO Tony Pace Hunts For ‘Brand Memories’

Tony Pace Subway Advertising
Dustin Aksland for Variety

Footlong turkey sandwiches on honey oat bread aren’t the only thing Subway is feeding America.

Under Tony Pace, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of the Subway Franchisee Advertising Fund Trust, the seemingly ubiquitous chain has also given couch potatoes plenty of content. In 2009, a fan of the NBC series “Chuck” enlisted Subway’s help to keep the program on air after seeing Subway appear on the show via a paid placement. In 2012, Subway commissioned a series of its own: “The 4 to 9ers,” a series of 10-minute shorts distributed via streaming-video hub Hulu. The show, which has attracted actors like Amy Yasbeck and Ted McGinley, features a character who works at a Subway in a mall.

The general idea, says Pace, is to create what he calls “brand memories.” He wants viewers to talk about Subway appearances in and around content as if they were speaking about the characters in the programs they tune in to see. “If the brand memory is really strong, those people are more likely to have an affinity for purchasing your brand,” he adds. “That’s what you are trying to create.”

Subway puts the bulk of its ad spending into TV, according to Kantar Media, but in 2014 its TV spend was basically flat, while its overall ad spending grew. That’s sure to raise the eyebrows of TV networks that count on Subway as a sponsor and are wary of the inroads digital and social media are making on their business.

In an edited interview below, Pace talks about the appeal of live sports and late-night TV, as well as Subway’s interest — when circumstances are appropriate — in weaving itself into the programs studios and TV networks want to get on the air.

Subway needs to reach millions of people in order to keep sandwiches going out the door. Yet data from Kantar suggests you kept spending on TV nearly the same in 2014 while expanding your overall budget. Do you still need as much TV advertising to achieve your required level of sales?

You are clearly doing things across a variety of media outlets. Television is very, very important to us. What people tend to classify as digital, which is a lot of different things, is very important to us. We look for ways to be in and around content and collaborate with the content creators. That is also very important to us. We are always fine-tuning those mixes. I’d like to think we are spending pretty efficiently.

What new types of marketing has Subway pursued as consumers tap into social, mobile and digital media?

We are in season three of “The 4 to 9ers.” … We have seen quality in the people working on it as well as the quality of work that comes out of it. … We have attracted high-profile folks. Doris Roberts, who was the mom on “Everybody Loves Raymond” — she was in season two, and this year we’ve got folks that are very accomplished actors from shows like “24,” “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody.” … The real interesting piece to me is as you do things, you get better and better at them, and you are attracting a lot of people.

In recent years, consumers have seen you place a strong emphasis on advertising in sports. Is there any other type of programming that can nab the audience levels that these broadcasts do?

It’s obvious that live professional sports are a great way to get audience. I think perhaps all but one of the top 36 shows in the past year were NFL games. To reach a big audience, you have to be in all of those places. We will continue to do that. We all know about people consuming where they want and when they want, but for us it’s really important to find ways to get a large audience, because there are wide swaths of consumers who are current and potential Subway customers.

Are you concerned about what the various sports leagues’ efforts to secure digital rights might do to their TV broadcasts?

The sizes of the contracts for most sports are pretty substantial, and that’s probably the most substantial revenue stream going into these sports. I think change there would probably not be quick.

Subway has also done a lot of interesting things in latenight TV. What do you make of all the switches among the hosts?

There’s really an advantage in terms of the quality that’s out there. David Letterman is energized by his farewell season. Jimmy Kimmel has been on for a number of years and he’s doing well, and NBC moving Jimmy Fallon into the “Tonight Show” — that’s also doing well. The quality across the board is really good, and it’s getting a good young audience. To us, that young audience is a very important target to reach.

During last year’s upfronts, I remember chatting with you about Fox’s “Red Band Society.” You noted that it was unlike anything else you had seen on TV, and were curious to learn more. The show didn’t become a hit, but would you be interested in sponsoring unique programs that may not get the biggest audiences if they filled a certain marketing need?

I really did think it broke new ground, but it did not garner the audience, and given production costs, the network needed to make a very quick content decision. We are always interested in helping with that … if there’s a reason for us to be there. Subway helped keep NBC’s “Chuck” on the air. There was a genuine audience desire for us to be there. (Fans reached out to the company to help keep the ratings-challenged spy serial rolling.) That was a really authentic thing for us to do. … The cost of production is pretty substantial, and as a good steward of our marketing dollars, it’s not like we’re going to underwrite the production of an entire series. That’s kind of a bridge too far, but we can collaborate on content. We can provide ways of letting large numbers of people know about the content, because we have a lot of people coming into our restaurants each week.