Subway's CMO Explains How Marketing Drove the Brand's Significant Sales Turnaround

Carrie Walsh and Dentsu Creative brought in Derek Jeter and others to channel ESPN’s ‘30 For 30’ at a pivotal time for the company

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After years of refreshing its brand, restaurants, digital presence and menu, Subway is in the mood for some reflective postgame analysis.

At the end of the NFL and college bowl seasons, Subway debuted a campaign looking back at the Subway Series menu of sandwiches it launched roughly six months earlier. Using a more lighthearted take on ESPN’s “30 For 30” documentaries, the brand created multiple commercials that will run throughout the NFL playoffs.

The spots were directed by Kenny Herzog of O Positive Films, whose previous work has included appearances by Joel Embiid, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Julie and Zach Ertz and other professional athletes. Subway and agency partner Dentsu Creative culled sandwich analysis from broadcasters Charles Barkley and Tony Romo, retired NFL star Rob Gronkowski, star quarterback Patrick Mahomes and four-time NBA champion Steph Curry. 

Oh, and since his ESPN documentary series “The Captain” just wrapped up in August, baseball Hall of Famer Derek Jeter seemed like a natural fit for the project.

“In order to stay, you have to constantly reinvent yourself,” said Carrie Walsh, Subway’s global CMO. “We are looking at talent that has shown push to always stay at the top of their game.”

Amid the breakdowns of rookie sandwiches and piled-on meats, cheeses, veggies and seasonings is a stable of familiar faces guiding Subway customers through new and unfamiliar territory. As the brand enters even more uncharted waters in 2023, with a potential sale in the works, a campaign stuffed with recognizable names and products becomes an even more essential part of Subway’s marketing menu.

“It does feel a little bit more like a promise to consumers that we’re continually getting better,” said Jason Stefanik, executive creative director at Dentsu Creative. “From an advertising standpoint, being able to talk about real fundamental changes that are building—as opposed to a limited-time thing or like a new recipe that’s just a one off—is refreshing.”

A footlong story

Subway, as Walsh and Dentsu pitch it today, first began its transformation in 2019. Just before the pandemic, the sandwich chain received a new brand identity with updated logos, typefaces, packaging and uniforms. It also took its first steps toward remodeling thousands of its stores by offering franchise owners grants.

Finally, it hired former Burger King leader John Chidsey as its CEO and began transforming itself from cheap, ubiquitous pre-sliced custom sub shop to a streamlined, tech-savvy pickup spot with its own slicers, focused on fixed menus of premium sandwiches. Within a year, Subway became an official NFL sponsor.

By mid-2021, Subway had revamped its digital presence, its mobile app and the majority of its locations. It launched a complete overhaul of its menu with an “Eat Fresh Refresh” campaign that brought in Barkley as the official voice of the company and surrounded Curry with six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady and 23-time Grand Slam tennis champion Serena Williams. Dentsu Creative was behind that campaign as well, and noted that it helped Subway beat sales projections by $1.4 billion after a decade’s worth of decline.

“Subway, in its DNA, has always been connected to sports and athletes,” Walsh said. “And that’s driven from the brand positioning, which is ‘We’re this better choice that people really do use to fuel better performance.’”

When Subway announced its Subway Series sandwich menu roughly six months ago, the brand kept its athlete-centric strategy. It used Barkley, Romo, former NFL running back Marshawn Lynch and others for spots in which they drafted new sandwiches into the chain’s lineup.

 “To us, the sandwiches are our superstars,” Stefanik said. “So we want to then partner those with people that can, for lack of better term, live up to the sandwiches.”

Biting into 2023

Subway still has the most locations of any U.S. restaurant chain, though that number’s fallen since 2015, and still ranks among the Top 10 in total sales.

However, according to the Wall Street Journal, Subway is considering a sale and consulting with advisors about a deal. The estimated value of the chain is $10 billion, which is slightly less than the $11.3 billion Inspire Brands paid for Dunkin’ in 2020 or the $11 billion Burger King paid for Tim Horton’s in 2014. With founders Fred DeLuca and Peter Buck dying in 2015 and 2021, respectively, the chain’s been privately held by their families since. 

“As a privately held company, we don’t comment on ownership structure and business plans,” a Subway spokesperson said in a statement to Adweek. “We continue to be focused on moving the brand forward with our transformational journey to help our franchisees be successful and profitable.”

Subway’s latest push for its newest sandwich menu aims to continue that transformation, but has faced headwinds beyond the uncertain future of its ownership. The pandemic delayed the introduction of Subway’s new brand and products. This year, it continues boosting a premium sandwich menu amid continued inflation and threat of a recession. 

However, while privately held Subway typically doesn’t release financial results, it noted in an October news release that the Subway Series menu drove a 7.4% increase in same-store sales during its eight-week launch compared to the same period a year earlier. During the third quarter, Subway said same-store sales increased 8.4%, including an 11% boost during the start of the NFL season in September.

While Subway’s entire brand refresh has been marked by periods of uncertainty, Walsh said she saw those obstacles as opportunities for her marketing team and its agency collaborators to be better partners in the process.

“This is more than a marketing campaign. It’s rooted in actions we’re taking to address the opportunities we see with our guests and our consumers,” Walsh said. “We’re going to look at what’s happening in 2023, and say ‘how do we bring solutions forward as part of that next phase of our refreshed journey that really help address consumer problems?’”

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