I just finished a two hour marathon of CBS’ fantastic program “Undercover Boss” and felt compelled to rush into my home office to pen this entry. The last installment this evening depicted a senior level Subway executive working under cover in the field with local franchise managers and workers. All I can say is, Subway should have hired a consultant to help socialize the meaning of this endeavour.
While “Undercover Boss” may purport to be entertainment, it is actually among the most shrewd infomercials ever conceived by television producers. Essentially the program allows global enterprises to portray themselves as open, honest, and benevolent corporate citizens. In a time when corporate social responsibility is at the forefront of modern best marketing practices, “Undercover Boss” is brilliant in its power to both entertain and subconsciously compel consumers to value their relationship with the protagonist companies.
I have several takeaways from the program that featured Subway. First, their chief development officer should be fired immediately. Keeping him around would be infinitely detrimental for staff morale: he was slow, took his various hourly jobs lightly, and didn’t really seem all that interested in anything or anyone throughout the hour long program. My second takeaway was that all the employees were ethnic minorities. Of the four ‘trainers’ that were attempting to help the C-level leader, there were two Hispanics and two African Americans. And while I’m unaware of how these antagonists were screened, all four of them were impeccably professional, more than capable, overwhelmingly admirable and infinitely inspirational. The exact opposite of the protagonist: a boorish, accidental executive who was also a recovering alcoholic.
What I want to do here is to challenge Subway to leverage the positives of this hour long ‘infomercial’, while diminishing the negatives. (I’ve already given that prescription above.)
So, how to leverage the positives you ask? One of the workers, a 19 year old Hispanic girl in Orlando, was a very compelling character in this drama. She was extremely dedicated to her work and to her future. She challenged the executive to be a better person and most importantly, she suggested that Subway consider adding a “Cubano” to the menu. This suggestion was given around minute 10 of the program and immediately I thought to myself, here is the golden nugget for the company if they truly want to bring a lift to their business.
The actual workers were the real snapshot for the future of the company. Their conversations and concerns, their realities, their characteristics are harmonious with those of the people that will be Subway consumers over the course of the next thirty years. Therefore, their feedback and input is essential to the continued growth and acceptance of the brand by the market at large.
Were Subway to leverage “Undercover Boss” and announce the release of a “Cuban Sandwich” later this week, it would potentially be the news of the decade for Subway. Today, the infamous Jared and his ability to lose weight is all but forgotten and in food war reality, was really never that important. The future for this brand is to become relevant and to speak honestly to the audience that forms their base.
A Cuban Sandwich, and an acknowledgement to this young and hard working employee would be the golden conclusion Subway’s experiment with CBS.
But do I think that Subway has the mettle to follow through with such a prescription? Sadly, no. What I learned during this hour long spiel was that Subway-at the executive level-is about as exciting as their sandwiches: which is to say tired, flavorless, stale and without any hope of providing nourishment in the future.
Kent Kirschner is Executive Managing Director of TRAFFIQ's Latin American team, and acting CEO of The Media Maquiladora.