Mendoza School of Business

Jared vs. Snoopy: Should Subway get a pitch dog?

Published: August 21, 2015 / Author: James O'Rourke IV

Jared Fogle is just the latest in a series of corporate spokesmen whose personal lives have complicated life for the companies that employ them. Corporate representatives ranging from Tiger Woods to Lance Armstrong to Paula Deen have seen their fortunes and good names plummet in value as a result of personal transgressions and bad public behavior.

The issue for Subway and Doctor’s Inc., the privately owned franchise-holding firm, is one of reputation. If the public perceives Subway, or any other company, to be allied with child pornographers or others engaged in socially undesirable behavior, they’ll not only assign a low reputation score to that company, they’ll quit doing business with them. One company after another has bailed out on Donald Trump following his hateful remarks about Mexicans and Hispanics during his presidential campaign announcement. Sponsors abandoned Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods overnight following revelations that one had used performance-enhancing drugs and the other had become a serial womanizer.

Mr. Fogle had been making as many as 200 appearances each year in support of the Subway brand and its tagline to “eat fresh.” Once his connection to a business associate and a separate investigation into child pornography became public, however, Subway marketers had little choice but to “suspend” their relationship with Jared. Now that he’s pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography, the company will swiftly terminate its contract with him. Jared Fogle has seen his last paycheck as a sandwich pitchman.

And, of course, there are absolutely no barriers to switching in the sandwich market. That market is too competitive to take another chance on a flawed human spokesman.

Joe McCann, who was senior vice president of corporate communication at PepsiCo for more than a decade and was forced to explain the behavior of Pepsi pitchman Michael Jackson, said “MetLife has that dog as its spokesman for a reason,” referring to Charles Schultz’s lovable Snoopy.

The humans who are employed as the face of a multi-billion dollar brand pose a risk as great as any to the future of the business.

So, what should a brand manager or corporate communicator do? Give up on living spokesmen and women? Invest entirely in mascots and cartoons? The answer there is clearly “no.” The approach, however, must be carefully managed.

First, the corporate officers responsible for selecting the “public face” of an organization must vet their subjects thoroughly. That means detailed background investigations and a very carefully designed set of selection criteria. Why do you want this particular individual (whether celebrity or ordinary citizen)? Manage the risk appropriately. Many would have said, “Bill Cosby poses no risk to our brand.” (think Jello, among others). But even he proved fallible.

Second, don’t depend entirely on one approach to public recognition and brand endorsement. Change the approach to keep it fresh. And, above all, listen to the customer. Your employees and brand partners will tell you a great deal about how you’re perceived in the marketplace, but your customers (and those who refuse to do business with you) will tell you even more.

In Subway’s case, they’ve listened. Customers told them that they don’t eat in Subway restaurants because a college kid lost weight eating their sandwiches. They listed their own reasons, including price, convenience, freshness, and more. The sandwich brand’s new approach focuses on “locally owned franchises preparing fresh meals for people just like you.” That’s a message likely to resonate with their customers for some time to come.

Commentary by James S. O’Rourke, a professor of management at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. He is a widely published author of 17 business texts, two tradebooks on business. O’Rourke’s teaching and research expertise is focused on reputation management and best practices among business communicators. He has directed Notre Dame’s Fanning Center for Business Communication for more than 25 years.

Read O’Rourke’s commentary on the CNBC website.