Brand Strategy Marketing

Why Subway thinks simplicity is the secret ingredient to winning over the Indian consumer

By Amit Bapna, APAC editor-at-large

August 3, 2023 | 6 min read

The American quick-service restaurant brand has been on a journey of change across many of its international markets. For the Indian market, that means the biggest shakeup to its menu in 20 years. Here the brand opens up on its drastic reinvention.

Subway's rewriting its India Story

Subway's rewriting its India Story

Opting for simplicity versus complexity, Subway has launched a range of new menu offerings in India – and simpler ways to order them. It's the biggest strategic shakeup from the brand in India in its two decades in the country.

The shift includes an easier-to-navigate ‘point and order' menu section as well as a new range of eight ‘hotseller’ subs, the flagship offering of the company, to combat an unwanted reputation for cold sandwiches.

Speaking to The Drum, Mayur Hola, chief marketing officer of Culinary Brands, said: “The newly launched ‘Point and Order’ menu is Subway's effort to simplify the ordering experience for many consumers.” Culinary Brands is Everstone Group’s food & beverages platform which is the master franchisee for the Subway brand for India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.

Subway’s India story so far

The US brand born in 1965 has been in India as a franchisee operation for 20 years and today boasts 650-plus stores. The menu and the offering have been more or less standardized, with scant work on menu innovation or having a strong play into the price-value game, which has been a large growth driver in most emerging markets across the globe and also in India. Global fast food brands like McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut and even Starbucks have had to traverse a complex journey of localization to suit the average Indian consumer’s taste buds as well as wallet spending.

Realizing some of these key challenges, Subway set about looking at the areas that needed a makeover. To give a consumer face to the narrative, the company also launched a quirky brand campaign that stars ace sportsman and world chess champion, Vishwanathan Anand, to demonstrate why it was time for the menu to be simplified. The normally methodical and in-control Anand is shown breaking into a sweat after getting overwhelmed with the ordering process.

Matching the menu to the Indian palette

The brand found two major challenges in keeping the Indian consumer satisfied. Firstly, not all consumers walk into a Subway ready to build their ideal sub; many walk-in clueless and confused, often preferring to opt for an easy-to-order option. Hence, the new and simplified ordering experience.

Secondly, Indians eat warm food habitually, and they like their food flavorful. Accordingly, the brand rejigged the menu and opted to launch a range of new hot subs (the 'hotsellers') that have been crafted with the Indian palate in mind. These include Chilli Cheese, Crunchy Mexican, Paneer Achari, Italian Pesto, Chicken Tikka Achari, Great American BBQ, Spicy Chicken Cheese, and Pepper Chicken.

Moving the needle from cold selling to 'hotsellers'

The revamping of the menu extends to its design and presentation. Items that haven't been successful – including some sauces and dips – have been discontinued as part of Subway slimming things down.

Hola claims that though the core customer base of the brand is currently in the bigger Indian cities, the new offering is resonating well in other smaller non-metro markets. “Consumers are appreciating the access, the ease of ordering and the taste that appeal to the Indian palette,” he adds.

From an Indian perspective, the brand has been witnessing some interesting trends as it forays into small towns outside of the metros. In places like Lucknow (the capital city of Uttar Pradesh, the most populated state of India) where Subway conducted a trial Saturday, Hola found that every sandwich that was sold in the store was a hotseller. “Hotsellers is being launched in India to tackle the brand challenge of Subway being perceived as serving only cold food,” he adds.

Re-engineering the brand offering for the first time in India

Subway's stranglehold on sandwiches is also its weakness. “Basically, its strength is also what limits the brand,” Hola says. For example, one does not necessarily think of ordering a Sub on a Friday night while popping open a bottle of beer. Following in the footsteps of other quick service restaurants, it wants to increase consideration of its offerings beyond the traditional lunchtime.

“The brand has realized it’s time to get our own products which are well-recognized and for which one doesn’t even need to look at the menu,” says Hola. Think the Whopper, KFC bucket or a chicken McGrill.

The reengineering in India mirrors similar changes by Subway in the UK and US. Subway's brand refresh in Britain has been accompanied by its biggest marketing campaign in the country in 25 years.

Casting coup: getting Chess master Vishwanathan Anand to act

In India, it is chess maestro Anand who has become the surprise face of its marketing activity.

Says Hola on the casting: “We figured that if we have to talk about this complexity (of the menu and the ordering process) then we should show the smartest guy among us and show that even they can also

it a little hard sometimes to order.”

After finding that too much choice can be a bad thing, Subway is opting to keep things simple for the next stage of its brand evolution. It's hopes are pinned on an old saying bearing true: sometimes less is more.

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