When Perth, Australia, teenager Matt Corby measured a Subway footlong sandwich and posted the results on Facebook, he didn't think he'd be starting a consumer revolution.
But, as MediaPost reports today, "It doesn’t take much to kick off a social-media stampede followed by a mainstream media steamrolling. The question is whether Subway’s response, sincere and honest as it may have seemed, comes across as half baked."
Making a long story short...
Corby, who works at competing fast food franchise Red Rooster, bought a Subway footlong and measured it with a tape measure. When it measured only 11 inches, he photographed it next to the tape measure and posted it on Subway's Facebook page with the message, "Subway, plse respond."
Subway didn't respond right away, but most of the rest of the world apparently did.
The short heard 'round the world
His post got about 131,000 likes, 5,890 comments and 3,910 shares.
That was only the beginning.
"Apparently," Thom Forbes writes at MediaPost, "'missing inch' photos rage has been brewing among Subway lovers for some time, because the internet was instantly awash with photos of footlongs falling short of the 12-inch mark."
A day late and a dollar short
Subway did get around to replying to Corby's comment.
"Hi, Matt. Thanks for writing. Looking at this photo, this bread is not baked to our standards,” they posted. "We have policies in place to ensure that our fresh baked bread is consistent and has the same great taste no matter which Subway restaurant around the world you visit. We value your feedback and want to thank you again for being a fan."
But by then the damage was done.
- "You should ask for a 1" refund."
- "I am calling for congressional hearings about this."
- "I DEMAND FREE SUBWAY SANDWICHES FOR LIFE OR I WILL SUE YOU FOR FALSE ADVERTISEMENT."
It wasn't just Facebook. And it wasn't just consumers.
- Bon Appetit magazine tweeted, "Length DOES matter."
- New York magazine tweeted, "Subway may be exaggerating the size of its, you know...Footlong" [their emphasis].
- DJ BLeeKSwinney tweeted, "That's funny. My Subway sandwich sure tastes like a foot."
Blogs from Yahoo!Canada's Shine to life.inc.today.com to Matt Yglesias on Slate joined in.
But it wasn't even just the internet.
Australia's national newspaper, the News, picked up the story.
The New York Post made it front-page news, under the headline, "Honey, I shrunk the footlong." The story itself made Subway footlongs sound like even more of a ripoff.
"Stingy Subway sandwich honchos are shorting customers by serving 11-inch 'Footlong' subs, hungry New Yorkers say," ran the lead to Kaylee Oslowski and Natalie O'Neill's expose.
Four out of seven Footlongs — purchased at Subway locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens — measured only 11 or 11.5 inches...
And that’s not the only corner Subway is cutting — the shops have sliced their cold-cut sizes by 25 percent in the past few months, a Manhattan franchise owner told The Post.
“The distributor has increased the food cost on the individual owners by 4 to 5 percent every year and provided the owners with less food,” the owner explained.
Smaller heroes and less meat have fired up loyal regulars — who now have a different kind of beef.
"[T]hose extra few bites can really add up," they add. "If you buy a $7 'footlong' every other day for a year, an axed extra inch adds up to a loss of roughly $100."
"That's an enormous breech [sic] of trust," Steven Colbert said on Comedy Central, calling Osowski and O'Neill "the Woodward and Bernstein of Oscar and Meyer" and praising them for breaking the story "through an investigative journalism technique known as lunch."
Escape and evasion are lousy consumer relations strategies
Subway's attempts to short-circuit the outrage also fell way short.
Their first tactic was to try and escape it, by taking down Corby's photo and post, along with all the related likes and comments. But photos like Corby's and snarky comments have been appearing on Reddit and all kinds of other Facebook pages, including one devoted to Subway's length shortage.
The second was to try and evade responsibility or pass it off to their franchisees.
Commenters who said they were Subway workers told TODAY's Ben Popken that the bread was shorter because it arrived at the stores frozen and wasn't tugged and "proofed" properly before baking. "If that's true," Popken says, "then Corby and others are still getting the same amount of bread as they're supposed to, it's just been a bit squished."
Maybe, but they're not getting the same amount of filling. "[T]hat’s less surface area for turkey, paneer tika, corn and peas, shrimp and broccoli, Peri Peri chicken -- or whatever is the popular filler in your neck of the world," Forbes counters.
A statement from Subway headquarters to ABCNews.com said
Our bread is freshly baked daily in each of the over 38,000 Subway restaurants worldwide. We are committed to providing a consistent product delivering the same amount of bread to the customer with every order. The length however may vary slightly when not baked to our exact specifications. We are reinforcing our policies and procedures in an effort to ensure our offerings are always consistent no matter which Subway restaurant you visit.
But that's neither owning up to a, er, shortcoming nor saying anything concrete about correcting it.
In fact, it's "rather damning of the franchise," Matt Yglesias posted at Slate.com. "After all, the essence of managing a large chain restaurant—and Subway is the world's largest by number of outlets—is quality control and uniformity. You ought to be able to roll up to a Subway anywhere in the country and know that the brand stands for certain things. They're saying, essentially, that you can't."
Subway's handling of this problem was a textbook case of what not to do.
Better to follow the example of Johnson & Johnson and other smart brands that have successfully coped with consumer crises:
- Admit the problem promptly. Delay breeds doubt and eventually distrust (and in any even won't make it go away). Better yet, have a crisis response plan in advance, so all you have to do is fill in the blanks.
- If you messed up, own up. Your customers are smart enough to spot mealy-mouthed waffling a mile away.
- Try to offer some compensation, if feasible. When something goes wrong on $30,000 autombiles, car companies recall them and make free repairs. That's surely more expensive than giving a small discount on the next $7 sandwich. If you can't afford to compensate, you can at least apologize in so many words and promise to do better.
That way, you can take advantage of an interesting paradox in consumer behavior. Consumers like brands that don't mess up. But they like brands that take the extra step of admitting their mistakes and fixing them even more.