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The Story Behind Subway’s Historic Menu Refresh

By Tom Cook and Howland Blackiston, co-principals at KING-CASEY




Going back to 2015, things were looking gloomy for Subway. Sales trended downward year-on-year, and, in 2018, the sandwich giant closed more than 1,100 domestic stores.


But today, the story is changing. This August, Subway saw its best sales month in the last eight years. Three-quarters of Subway’s 22,000 U.S. restaurants averaged a 14 percent jump in sales. As a result of this boost, it appears Subway will exceed this year’s sales projection by north of $1 billion.


So, how did the world’s largest restaurant chain do it, and what can we learn from Subway? It started with unprecedented changes to the menu itself.


Before the updates, Subway saw positive same-store sales in Q2 compared to 2019, but when the Eat Fresh Refresh initiative debuted in mid-July, the innovation put the sandwich chain in a position it hasn't seen in some time. Domestic sales during August rose more than 4 percent versus two years ago, with the top-performing quartile—comprising more than 5,000 restaurants—seeing a 33 percent increase. The top three quartiles combined, which is roughly 16,000 stores, averaged a nearly 14 percent bump. And according to a survey of more than 66,000 guests, 83 percent said they were fans of the menu changes


The Largest Menu Initiative in Subway’s History

Subway’s “Eat Fresh Refresh” initiative included 20 changes to its core items, along with 11 new and improved ingredients.


To augment and bolster the Eat Fresh Refresh, Subway upgraded its digital ordering app, launched DoorDash delivery via its app and website, and made a large media investment to communicate changes.


With the new menu initiative underway, Subway launched a structured, data-and-insights driven process to improve menu communications in U.S. stores as well. The rest of this article reveals the process that followed.


Subway’s Menu Communications Optimization Process

Conducting a Menu Communication Strategy Development Workshop: The process started with a two-day strategic planning workshop at Subway’s headquarters. The objectives were as follows:


To obtain management’s vision, insights, strengths, and weaknesses regarding Subway’s current and future menu strategies and menuboard communications.


To use the vision and insights from the workshop to develop and publish a menu communications strategy that would lead to the development of an optimized menuboard architecture and design.


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To develop a range of preliminary menuboard architecture layouts that would guide the development of several menuboard strategies that would first be evaluated using quantitative consumer surveys. And with the “winning” strategy to be tested in actual store environments.


Getting Top Management Involved: The workshop included a cross-functional team with Subway’s chief operating officer, chief marketing officer, president of North America, SVP marketing strategy and planning, senior director of consumer and product insights, SVP operations, SVP market operations, VP business intelligence and analytics, global learning and development, and three outside consultants.


Benchmarking the Competition: Competitive and best-practice menuboards were selected for benchmarking. The team studied and evaluated these observing how the menu was segmented, allocated space, organized the use of imagery, the number of items listed, the ease of ordering, pricing strategies, etc.


Assessing Subway’s Current Menuboard: The team then turned their attention to their own current and past menuboards, discussing strengths and weaknesses, and identifying specific opportunities for improvement (what are the tactics that will allow Subway to realize the business objectives for their new, optimized menu communications).


Establishing Business Objectives: The team established the critical business objectives for the optimized menu communications. It was against these objectives that the new menu communications would be measured. The new menu communications must:

  • Increase check

  • Improve ease and speed of navigation

  • Bring the food to life


Prioritizing Categories and Menu Items: Not all menu categories and individual menu items are of equal importance. Some are more profitable than others. Some sell better than others. Some are signature to the brand. Some are critical to achieving the new business objectives. Considering these realities, the team prioritized menu categories and items to guide the organization and architecture of the new menuboards.


Developing Architecture Layouts: On the last day of workshop, the team came up with eight alternative strategies for Subway’s new menuboards. By the end of the day, the group had developed wireframe schematic layouts for two of the most promising strategies to be consumer validated. The schematics serve as a “blueprint” for how the optimized menuboard will be organized to achieve the business objectives established during the workshop.


Creating Visual Strategies for an Evaluation Survey: Following the workshop, the menu architecture layouts were developed into color renderings visually illustrating each of the new menu strategies. These are not final designs. There’s just enough detail in the renderings (visuals, graphics, copy, colors) to conduct a quantitative consumer survey to quickly assess the validity of the new menu communication strategies.


The Survey Methodology: This online survey of consumers is a fast and cost-effective way to objectively evaluate the new menuboard strategies before finalizing the menuboard design and before placing new menuboards in stores. In Subway’s case, hundreds of surveys were conducted online. Consumers across the country were shown a rendering of one of the new communication strategies or shown a rendering of the current menuboard (as a control). Respondents were asked a battery of questions about the visual strategy they were shown, as well as asked to place an order from the menuboard. The data gathered clearly indicated that both new strategies outperformed the current menuboard on a number of attributes, and one in particular was a standout winner regarding the key business objectives established during the two-day menu communication workshop.


Design Development of the Most Promising Menuboard Communications Strategy: With the survey findings in hand, strategic refinements were made to the “winner” and the actual menuboard design was done, and the resulting menuboard was put into production for in-store testing.


“Headlining the Eat Fresh Refresh was the largest menu update in the company’s history, with more than 20 changes to our core menu, including new bread, protein and add-ons,” says Robin Seward, SVP of marketing strategy and planning at Subway. “Menu strategy, architecture, and design were critical to success on launch week and beyond, especially considering the size and complexity of Subway’s restaurant system with more than 22,000 locations and 11,000 franchisees in the U.S.”


Menu Communications Success Factors

All of this sounds like common sense, and in fact, it is. But not every brand follows a structured and systematic approach like Subway did. We have seen this approach work time and time again. It’s a methodology that any restaurant brand can benefit from when optimizing their menu communications. In summary, there are four key elements to Subway’s success:

  • Subway used a process driven by data, analytics, and consumer insights.

  • Subway’s senior leadership was directly involved in the development of the menu communications strategy.

  • Subway’s menu communications strategy was tied to specific business objectives and communication tactics that would realize these objectives.

  • Subway created a layout and architecture for menu communications that outperformed the current and achieved the project’s key business objectives.

Tom Cook and Howland Blackiston are co-principals of King-Casey. Established in 1953, King-Casey is a restaurant and foodservice business improvement firm. King-Casey provides strategic menu optimization advice and a range of services to help clients manage overall food and beverage offerings affecting their positioning, reputation, and business growth. For information, visit www.king-casey.com or contact Tom Cook at 203/571-1776 or tcook@king-casey.com

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