Saturday, November 07, 2009

Subway: Overcoming Headquarters Bias

This Business Week story explains the origins of Subway's incredibly successful "$5 foot long" marketing campaign. Brand managers at corporate headquarters did not concoct the campaign. The idea did not originate on Madison Avenue. Instead, it began with a promotion launched by a small Miami-based franchisee named Stuart Frankel. Other local franchisees latched onto the idea, after seeing how profitable the strategy had become for Stuart Frankel. Frankel and his peers had some convincing to do though. It took awhile, but they finally did persuade corporate to adopt the concept for the entire chain.

Interestingly, this campaign does not represent the first such innovation from the front lines at Subway. The famous "Subway diet" campaign featuring Jared Fogle emerged form the field as well! A fellow student wrote about Fogle's unique Subway diet, and Men's Health magazine wrote an article about him later. Soon, a local Chicago-area franchisee noticed the story, and he began trying to convince corporate headquarters to adopt Jared's story as the centerpiece of an advertising campaign. Again, the idea met resistance from corporate, but after regional success in the Midwest, franchisees finally convinced headquarters that the idea had tremendous merit.

These two stories both illustrate the power of harnessing creativity and innovation at the front lines of organizations, where local knowledge resides. At the front lines, employees interact with customers every day, and they often generate new ideas that could serve consumers better.

What's the challenge? I describe it as headquarters bias. In too many instances, the corporate office simply thinks they know better than the field employees (sort of like the intellectuals and politicians in Washington always think they know better than the average citizen). Give Subway credit for not allowing the initial "headquarters bias" to completely shut down these ideas. After initially resisting, they recognized the value of the ideas and spread them throughout the chain's locations.

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