Subway goes after the fickle teen market with a Web-based sitcom series about dating, after-school jobs and the sweet smell of cookies
Fast-food purveyors have to overcome a lot of challenges to secure millennials’ loyalty, and chief among them is a diverse and formidable competitor set. Milford, Conn.-based Doctors Associates Inc., which owns the global chain of Subway restaurants, decided to try to reach young consumers where they’re spending their time and to serve up something particularly appealing to this content-hungry demographic: online video entertainment.
“Teens, tweens and millennials are on everybody’s short list of folks they want to reach through Internet videos because, obviously, they are watching them all the time,” says Tony Pace, Subway’s CMO.
Subway approached Los Angeles-based branded video production company Content & Co. to write, direct and produce a straight-to-Web series that goes beyond Subway product placements but stops short of making the videos appear to be commercials. “Content marketing is demanding that marketers be really artful,” Pace says. “You can’t simply repeat your advertising message. When you’re involved with creating content, you have to have finesse and understand that you’re an invited guest.”
Adds Stuart McLean, CEO of Content & Co.: “What a lot of brands have seen develop in the marketplace is the value of content as an engagement vehicle for brands to connect with their audience. We’ve seen a decline in traditional broadcast channels and the 30-second commercial, and this all plays into how brands can best have that conversation with their consumer.” Subway marketers provided the Content & Co. team with some plot points, such as Subway’s catering offerings, mentions of signature sandwiches, and the smells of baked bread and cookies, and then let the writers take it from there.
On Aug. 22, 2012, Subway launched “The 4 to 9ers,” an 11-part Web series posted on Hulu.com and on Subway’s YouTube channel. Directed by James Widdoes, who formerly directed the TV sitcom Two and a Half Men, and written by TV veterans Danielle Wolff and Tim O’Donnell, the show follows a lead character who is a high-school-age Subway employee and it hits on many teenage rites of passage: first jobs, first dates and first cars. The second season shifts the cast of characters to the “Day Shift,” a group of college grads looking to dive into their careers and working at Subway in the meantime, and the storyline includes the revelation that the owner of the Subway franchise is a young Wall Street investor looking to make a quick buck. The content marketing program is a digital-only effort, with fan pages on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube where viewers can watch behind-the-scenes clips and blooper reels, and share stories about their own first jobs.
“Brands, since the beginning, have always been developers of content,” McLean says. “It’s just taken different shapes and sizes, and now it’s taking the shape of a Web series. The real value here, why brands should create their own programming, is to create an asset for them. ‘The 4 to 9ers’ is going into its third year, and it’s a Subway property and something they can repurpose and continue to get value from.”
“The 4 to 9ers” was granted “Hulu Spotlight Series” status for its first season in 2012 and given prime placement in the Hulu.com home page carousel next to top-ranked TV programming. It has since garnered nearly 30 million total views on Hulu and YouTube.
The Web series won an Effie Gold Award for best marketing content from a restaurant in 2014, and a silver Internationalist Award for Innovative Digital Solutions in 2013. Subway declined to provide details on any revenue-oriented ROI. According to McLean, Subway’s main objective for the video series was brand lift and social buzz. “Our main goal was to get teenagers to talk about the brand, in person and on social media. Of course, we hope that leads to sales in the long term.”
In 2013, Subway shot to the No. 1 spot, ahead of Google and Target, on New York-based branding and research firm Vivaldi Partners Group’s social currency ranking, which measures consumers’ perceptions of brands based on the brands’ social media presence. Subway also appeared at No. 1 on London-based research firm YouGov’s annual “Top U.S. Brand Index Buzz” ranking in 2012 and 2013.
“[Subway is] doing a fantastic job of defining this whole turf, where brand and entertainment meet and how to really make smart entertainment that’s branded but where the brand involvement is so good and organic and genuine that it’s a strength that it’s branded,” says Janet Brown, CEO of New York-based video production and distribution company FilmBuff, where she has helped create branded video content for Burt’s Bees and Disney. “From the outside, it looks like this was a smart investment … and definitely a great way to connect with the millennial audience.”
Pace sees this Web series as the first experimental step in the company’s journey as a content producer. “It’s becoming more and more complicated to reach large groups of people,” he says. “While we’ll always continue to do traditional advertising, we think it’s important to collaborate with the creators of content so our brand can get some appropriate exposure there. … It was a great way for us to work in a way where we didn’t impinge on the creative team’s freedom, but we were also able to get our message in there in a way that made good sense so that we could get it out to our consumers.”
Doctor’s Associates Inc.
Content & Co.
August 2012 to present
Videos thus far have garnered 30 million total views on Hulu and YouTube. Effort received an Effie Gold Award for best marketing content from a restaurant in 2014, and a silver Internationalist Award for Innovative Digital Solutions in 2013.
This was originally published in the April 2015 issue of Marketing News.