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In recent years Subway has suffered from a variety of crises and sales collapses. In 2020, 2,400 locations were closed. The final shockwave came in early 2021 when two disgruntled Subway customers filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in California, claiming the tuna salad wasn't tuna and may not even be fish.
Subway public relations took the shrewd fight against the lawsuit and tweeted, "Keep fishing, we will continue to serve 100% wild-caught tuna." A fun Twitter exchange with Jessica Simpson also played out her 2003 “Chicken of the Sea” slip-up. The brand offered 15% off the price of foot-length tuna salad subs as long as customers used the “ITSREAL” promo code. The advertisement for this offer contained the sentence “100% real wild-caught tuna” in a prominent place.
Some clever tweets and a promotion from Subway headquarters suggested the franchise dismissed the lawsuit as frivolous before the court did so, but its message doesn't address the fundamental trust issues customers have complained about for years. Remember when an Irish court declared that Subway bread was not bread? Or how about when someone claimed their foot was actually 11 ½ inches long? Let's not even talk about Jared.
With the company experiencing a sharp drop in sales for nearly a decade, it may be time for Subway to ditch the duck-and-backlash routine and instead tackle their current crisis while making some fundamental changes in their communication style.
Every company has its crisis points, but it's about how executives deal with the crisis. One day your "fake tuna" crisis comes and you don't want to make casual mistakes dealing with the problem.
Here are four simple lessons that can teach you Subway's inadequacies in dealing with a crisis.
Subway's communications strategy was clever, but did little to instill trust as it was not supported by procurement information or testimonials from Subway's fish sources. Subway has to focus its communication on being less clever and more authentic and transparent. Instead of clever tweets, film fish deliverers bringing in the day's catch for your restaurants. If being that transparent is a problem, then it is a completely different problem.
Lesson learned: Be open to your customers. While you may want to say as little as possible during a crisis (or, in the case of Subway, try to fight back against the haters), communicating openly and transparently will build trust with your customers.
Similar: Resilience in companies: The 5 pillars necessary for strengthening in a crisis
Promise to do better
Instead of avoidance and prudence, Subway should anticipate the problem and take basic steps to make it better. Following the Chipotle E. Coli outbreak in 2015, the company took important steps to improve and maintain its food safety protocols. It has set up an independent Food Safety Council to assess, among other things, its food safety, staffing and training to mitigate the problems that led to the outbreaks. To be fair, Subway has made a more detailed statement on sustainable fishing practices, but the language on its website still speaks of long-term change as opposed to immediate action.
Lesson learned: After you identify the problem, you need to take concrete steps as soon as possible to make it clear to your customers, employees, and shareholders that things will get better in the future.
Related: 7 Ways To Recover From A Reputation Crisis
Back to the basics
If the New Coke disaster of 1985 taught us anything, it is that sometimes companies have to stop innovating and go back to basics. With several menu additions, including flatbreads and soups, Subway has puffed up its menu and moved away from the basics that helped the company grow: simple and fresh sandwiches made right in front of the customer. The "Eat Fresh" slogan is the perfect call to action.
Lesson learned: There are many companies that do a lot of things mediocre. You want to be great at one thing. Does that mean making sandwiches for Subway and what does it mean for your company? To get out of a crisis, you need to focus on your core function again.
Adapt to current ideas
Healthy nutrition, sustainable food procurement, environmental pollution. These are not just buzzwords – these are things that customers really care about. Whole Foods knows that modern customers care about the sustainability of their sources, so the business has made it visible to customers. While the brand has improved, the impact of Subway's lack of information on tuna sourcing on consumer confidence is real. And it not only arouses a lack of trust, but also lets the company get out of hand.
Lesson Learned: Recognizing and adapting to current ideas is not about following the latest trend or being politically correct. It's about recognizing fundamental changes in today's society and making sure your company is part of that discussion. Focus on your core business, but be flexible enough to be able to react to important changes. You don't want to be left behind.
What Subway is doing to deal with the recent crisis is up to them. However, you can prepare – or maybe even avoid it altogether – for a potential crisis by reflecting on these four important lessons and how they can affect your business.
Related: How crises are learning opportunities