Jared Fogle has probably eaten his last Subway sandwich for a long time to come. If the restaurant chain has anything to do with it, Fogle will never step foot into another Subway ever again. Fogle who served as Subway’s public face for 15 years pleaded guilty to child pornography charges. Federal prosecutors said Fogle travelled to have sex acts with at least 14 children. Subway announced it was terminating its relationship with Fogle in a terse statement released on Twitter and Facebook. The Fogle/Subway case shows the dangers of celebrity spokespersons becoming interchangeable with a brand and also on how not to handle a crisis situation.
Jared Fogle shot to fame when his story of losing over 200 pounds went public. Fogle based his weight loss on visiting a Subway restaurant and ordering a low-fat sandwich. From that sandwich on, he dropped more than 200 pounds in about a year while eating Subway’s turkey subs and veggie subs with no mayonnaise and cheese. When Subway learned of his story, he became the face of Subway promoting their healthy alternatives to fast food. His story became the Subway story. Consumers identified with his everyman story and could relate to his weight struggle. Franchise owners reported increased sales when commercials and other promotional material featuring Fogle ran. All told he made over 50 television commercials for the chain. The company hyped him as the perfect family man whose values were those of Subway. To the public, Fogle and Subway were one and the same. Fogle, was known as “Jared from Subway.” His Wikipedia page calls him “the Subway Guy.”
On July 7th, that all came crashing down for Fogle and Subway. The FBI, Indiana State Police and the U.S. Postal Service raided Fogle’s home seizing electronic equipment with the clear implication from media reports that he was suspected of being involved in child pornography. A Florida woman came forward and said that Fogle had made remarks to her that were so inappropriate and shocking that she had contacted law enforcement officials. This happened two months after Russell Taylor, the former executive director of the Jared Foundation, which Fogle started to raise awareness to and combat childhood obesity, was arrested on federal child pornography charges. Overnight, Fogle became the punch line for late night comedians with Subway included in the jokes. There was also a sense of public revulsion.
Subway announced it was merely suspending its relationship with Fogle. That was the company’s first mistake. It should have immediately terminated its relationship with Fogle. Whether true or not, there was no way that Fogle could ever again be an effective spokesperson for Subway and the longer the public perceived that Subway was looking to bring him back the more tarnished the brand was. There are three things that a brand or individual never fully recover from – a scandal with animals; a scandal with race; and a scandal with children.
Finally hours before Fogle was due to plead guilty Subway announced via social media, “We no longer have a relationship with Jared and have no further comment.” No expression of sympathy for the 14 victims of Fogle. No expressions of condemnation at Fogle’s actions and the fact that he had lied to the public and Subway when the allegations surfaced. Additionally they referred to Fogle as Jared reinforcing in the public’s mind that longtime association and sense of chumminess with Fogle. That Subway doesn’t even use Fogle’s last name in its post about is a sharp reminder of just how associated with each other the two entities became. Social media has been sharply critical of Subway for its response.
Erasing the image of Jared with Subway will not be easy. After all the two have been associated for 15 years. Yet had Subway terminated its relationship when the investigation began, the company would have been six weeks ahead in rebranding and distancing itself from Fogle. Now they face the worst of both worlds – Fogle is gone and damaged beyond repair; the company must rebrand, and in its handling of the situation came across as curt and uncaring for child victims.
The Fogle/Subway saga is a cautionary tale for any brand that becomes identified with its spokesperson. The brand sinks or swims with that person’s reputation. And in this world of social media, people expect brands to express remorse and regrets during a crisis such as Subway has faced with Fogle.