There are two brands in the news today and I can only imagine one of them coming out relatively unscathed. Former Subway spokesperson Jared Fogle pled guilty to child pornography charges, while the website Ashley Madison was hacked, leading to a public outing of users who signed with up with the adultery website.

Turns out they can't keep a secret.

Turns out they can’t keep a secret.

I use the word “relatively” above because I believe both brands are hurt by what happened, just by different degrees. The more direct and potentially crushing blow was suffered by Ashely Madison because its brand is all about secrecy. That was the only reason why it existed. Affairs happen all the time, but Ashley Madison promised anonymity and an iron wall that would keep your secret safe.

Not anymore. The hackers released the emails of more than 33 million users, including many in the military and government. (A radio station in Australia told a woman on air that her husband had signed up.) That’s embarrassing and a backbreaker for the Ashley Madison brand.

What Jared Fogle means to Subway.

The Subway Jared Fogle situation actually interests me more. I do not think that Subway is in any danger of becoming extinct and, in fact, will still survive successfully. But Subway, which has the most fast food locations in the nation, even more than McDonald’s, is not exactly raking in the bucks like it used to collect.

Sales are falling and there are several reasons for it. Subway has owned the fast casual sector that’s less about getting something fast through the drive-thru and more about coming into the store and eating quickly. But competition is increasing as newcomers like Chipotle take market share.

Jared FogleThe brand of Subway has also been kinda lazy. While its “Eat Fresh” position is fine and all, it’s all about the product and “fresh” has become a tired cliché in the industry.

For a brand to succeed, it must be an emotional reflection of those when they use the brand. That’s how brands become preferred. For Subway, those emotional reflections have rested on the reputations of its celebrity spokespeople – and that can become a problem. When you are associated with a real person, any scandal reflects on you.

The Fogle scandal doesn’t directly impact Subway because the chain reacted quickly to it, releasing him from his contract as soon as he was charged. But it spoke to a larger problem for Subway in that it is very reliant on those celebrities. It often trots out athletes, such as NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III, but athletes are generally short-term faces of a brand unless that athlete is transcendent. (Griffin is not.)

Even if the athlete or celebrity is transcendent, it’s a dangerous game to play. You are depending on a personality to sell your brand, not the brand itself.

As competition continues to invade Subway’s space, the more it needs to make the brand, not the celebrity, the important reason to choose. Otherwise, another scandal may eventually doom it to irrelevancy.

Just don’t make your brand about something in which you will fail, like Ashley Madison. Make it about your customer.


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