The Transformer: 5 Questions With Subway Global CMO Joe Tripodi


Subway - Grab Life By The Jalapenos

Subway has begun its brand redefinition with a high-energy, edgy campaign that ran during the Winter Olympics telecasts on NBC. But for Chief Marketing Officer Joe Tripodi, “Make It What You Want” is an apt description for the the brand’s journey, and only the beginning of transforming Subway.

The first joint chief marketing and chief commercial officer for Coca-Cola, Tripodi left a cushy gig as an Executive Vice President at the Coca-Cola Company to join the family-owned Subway in 2015. The lure: the opportunity to turn around an iconic brand in the wake of a period of unprecedented disasters, including declining sales and the sentencing and incarceration of its former spokesman, Jared Fogle, on child pornography charges. The death of co-founder Fred DeLuca, who was 17 when the first Subway opened, underlined the sense that the brand had lost its bearings and purpose.

Joe Tripodi“I had a great run as the longest-serving head of marketing at Coke of anyone who’d come in from the outside,” Tripodi (right) told brandchannel. “When I was at Coke I also oversaw the commercial area, so I had a window into a lot of the QSR and restaurant industry. I loved the Subway positioning of affordable and nutritious food as a great alternative to the burger- and-fry restaurants. I felt it has tremendous potential. It’s a big canvas to play on, and I felt that my global background would help them quite a bit here.”

In fact, adds Tripodi—a graduate of Harvard and the London School of Economics who also worked as CMO at Allstate, the Bank of New York and Seagrams—”I’ve been helping with the whole transformation of the company. It’s daunting and exhilarating at the same time.” As part of that effort, he has been expanding his team, including recently hiring Arby’s veteran Len Van Popering as Vice President of Global Brand Management and Innovation.

As part of the turnaround in North America, the Subway MyWay Rewards is launching in the U.S. and Canada in mid-March and will be available at 28,500 restaurants, making the token-based system the largest loyalty program in the QSR industry. “The program really is about flexibility and choice to the consumer,” Subway Chief Digital Officer Carissa Ganelli told USA Today.

For more insights on the changes underway at Subway, Tripodi spoke with brandchannel about the new campaign, turnaround plan, the challenges ahead—and why customization, everyday affordability and delicious, nutritious sandwiches are still at the core of its business.

“Make It What You Want” has almost a punk rock feel; there’s even a part that says, “I do what the ___ I like!” What are you going for with this campaign?

We’re going through an epic transformation of Subway—the business, the brand and the company. Brand is an important part of that. We needed to inject more youthful energy, be edgier, more breakthrough. Consumers are getting thousands of messages every day. It’s harder and harder to reach Gen Zs and millennials, so you can’t have your advertising be wallpaper. It takes a little time to do that with a new personality and tonality for the brand that’s bolder and stronger that we think wil help break through.

Music is a powerful way to break through the clutter and also speak to what we think is a significant source of competitive advantage for us, which is a whole focus on customization and choice. No one can come anywhere near us on that. To make it bigger than just the sandwich, we looked at the juxtaposition of life and food.

Just because you’re a food restaurant doesn’t mean you need to confine representation of the brand to inside the restaurant. It’s all about people making certain choices. We think by showing a lot of active, living activity, that fits nicely with our brand’s heritage and tradition of healthy eating. And we just wanted to bring that to light in a more powerful and impactful way.

Make it saucy. Make it spicy. Make it tasty. Make It What You Want.

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What do Subway customers want, according to your research? Are interior upgrades to stores and a better loyalty app a game-changer, or is it about getting back to basics: delicious menu items with fresh ingredients, priced right? 

They want a nutritious sandwich at an affordable price, but they define value a little more broadly. As a business you have to have in a hyper-competitive QSR space a compelling, everyday affordable platform: price certainty. About 20 to 30 percent of all consumers see value entirely as price. Price is what you pay, but value is what you get.

We think we have a lot of dimensions to our brand, whether it’s our ubiquity or mass availability, or large variety of choice—that kind of choice is value. The fact that you have the option to toast your sandwich is value. And that you’ve got six or eight different sauce options. That we have freshly baked cookies is value. We’ve got a great healthy kids’ meal. All these dimensions kind of create a value.

Make it different. Make it bold. Make it big. Make It What You Want.

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So where you’re going to see the campaign go as it evolves, we’re always going to have to be talking about the price side but there are also huge opportunities for us to use this when we launch a new product, and that will be coming out very soon when we launch our wraps program next week. We’ll have new creative for that in the same tonality, very bold. And as the campaign evolves we think it has a lot of flexibility and lots of bandwidth relative to how you can do some very competitive storytelling. Including the fall and the holiday season.

It’s going to go against all the touch points of our business: radio, social, mobile, website, and a sub-website we call Subculture, focused on our corprorate social responsibility efforts. It’ll be embedded in our loyalty program and brought to life in stores and on kiosks, on digital menu boards. We see this tonality and personality and make-it-what-you-want mindset going across all of these consumer touchpoints. And then ultimately we’ll see how it works in North America and then look at potential to take this around the world from a global perspective. Choice and pesonalization are two very powerful aspects of a brand that resonate with millennials and Gen Z.

Is Subway’s “Search For Better” commitment to freshness and locally-sourced ingredients getting lost in the noise; and if so, what can you help your stores and franchise owners do to communicate that to customers?

That will be another value component in the overall campaign. That wil be part of the campaign but you don’t need to be banging that every day on national television. It can be told closer to the point of purchase and on your packaging and on your digital menu boards. There are many ways to continue to reinforce this.

Subway new store design

Subway closed more stores last year than it opened, and there have been tensions with franchisees over promotions and profits. What’s going on there and how does this campaign address those tensions?

Any time you get a few years where your sales are down, the system, the franchisees and development agents get concerned. This is an epic transformation, a total touch point transformation. A campaign in and of itself won’t turn our business around. We feel we’ve hit a winner and will blow it out against all the touch points, but we need to make sure we’re constantly improving against every dimension.

We need to make sure we have the right kind of loyalty program, which we’re just rolling out, and make sure our customers can get to us very quickly. We’ve been rolling out a new social-listening structure worldwide. It’s about becoming a modern, 21st Century company that uses precision marketing, and moving away from spray-and-pray. We have to be great everywhere and deliver on our brand promise at all times.

Where do you hope Subway will be if were talking five or 10 years from now?

You never get there. It’s always a continuous journey. It’s all about continuous improvement. When you step back and put your feet up and relax, that’s the beginning of the end. Complacency and losing relevance are the things that kill so many brands—losing that emotional connection. With this campaign we’re trying to drive a more powerful emotional connection with our primary audience. These are elusive groups to reach.

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