Sandwich chain Subway has long marketed its food as more healthful than many other options in the quick-service segment.
Tony Pace, chief marketing officer of the 34,000-unit chain, recently discussed its latest health-focused marketing strategies.
What is Subway's marketing message?
We’re trying to avoid what I’d call health extremism: The whole notion that you have to be very prescribed down to the lowest level of calories isn’t really helpful to most of the population. So we’re showing things like the turkey BLT, which has 9 grams of fat. It’s flavorful, and you’re not in deprivation mode [when you order it], and that’s a much more livable way of eating. It’s not some sort of extreme exclusion of all the foods you like to the extent that you think you’re depriving yourself of all the food you like. You just can’t sustain that.
This March will be the 14th anniversary of when [spokesman] Jared [Fogle] started losing weight. He embodies sustainable weight loss.
How is Subway conveying the message of sustainable weight loss?
We haven’t found a way to do that yet. It’s something I’ve been talking about for a couple of years. I think the bigger opportunity for us, when you talk about healthful communication — weight loss is part of it, but being happy with who you are and looking good and feeling good is part of it.
We’ve talked about 2012 being a big year for athletes everywhere. We’re working with Blake Griffin of the [Los Angeles] Clippers and Michael Strahan of the [New York] Giants, promoting the idea of feeling good, looking good and doing what you want to do in a manner that’s successful for you.
How has the chain promoted that idea with new menu items?
We’ve done a lot with avocado, and steak melts. We’ve started talking about the turkey BLT and turkey melt that are variations on things we already had that appeal to customers. We’re also teaching [customers] how to do a twist on the basics and use some of the flourishes that add to the taste appeal, but don’t add a lot to caloric content or fat content.
Does Subway get a lot of website traffic from people looking for nutritional information?
We get a lot of traffic on the website, but a lot of it is functional [like finding a restaurant] or looking at some of our marketing products. There are some customers that are really into the [nutritional] particulars. And there are others who want something that’s healthy, and they know they can get it at Subway because they know they can put whatever they want on their sandwich.
Last year, the chain started fortifying its bread  with vitamin D and calcium. How did customers respond to that?
They responded fine to it. When you make something better [nutritionally], what you don’t want is for people to say, ‘I don’t like it anymore.’ We want to improve things, but we don’t want people to think that we’re taking away things that they like.
In markets like New York City, where labeling menus with caloric information is required, have you noticed a difference in what people order?
I don’t think we have a definitive answer. I think what we see is that there’s a change in the first couple of weeks or months, but then everything sorts out.
Do people go back to ordering what they had before they saw the calorie information?
Sometimes there’s a shift. We notice there’s a pattern and we notice how it changes. But we don’t know the long-term effect yet.