A brand ambassador, also known as an influencer in the current marketing era, is an individual that is hired by an agency or corporation to represent a company. The purpose of ambassadors is to shed a positive light on the business, thereby increasing brand visibility and sales. Nowadays, businesses frequently choose ambassadors for their social media presence or prestige. While ambassadors can certainly have benefits, there can be severe repercussions when businesses do not consider their representatives in depth.
Let’s reflect back on Subway’s most significant spokesperson: Jared Fogle. Before he became Subway’s famous icon, Jared Fogle was a student at Indiana University. He was extremely overweight at approximately 425 pounds. Jared frequently stated that his insecurities about his weight kept him from engaging in college activities and clubs. While his weight gain significantly influenced his social confidence, his health also declined. As he got heavier, his sleep apnea worsened. At one point in his life, he was exhausted enough to fall asleep while operating his car. This was the moment Jared believed he needed to make a change. Afterward, he began his “all Subway diet.” Jared lost 245 pounds in a single year.
In the year 2000, Jared was hired by Subway as a representative. He was the star of an ad campaign documenting his successful diet experience. As a spokesman, Jared shot more than 300 advertisements from 2000 to 2015. The iconic 'fat jeans' he wore before he lost weight were used in several of his commercials. As a spokesperson he was so popular that he began appearing at NASCAR races, bore an Olympic torch, was featured on News programs, and acted as a guest in films. When he served as Subway's spokesperson, the sales volume of the company almost tripled.
That is, until Jared was caught committing criminal acts. Fogle pled guilty and was sentenced to 15 years in jail on charges of child abuse and having sex with minors. Subway was aware of the pedophilic activities of Fogle, but since he was not technically an employee, they maintained that they were not concerned with the scandal.
The Jared Fogle controversy seriously wounded Subway's credibility as a brand. Even after the corporation's attempt to improve the reputation by opening stores in different areas, its revenues fell by 3.4 percent from the prior year (2015). The healthier image Subway received from Fogle’s marketing reportedly also raised the expectations of other sandwich companies. Competitor brands such as Jimmy John's, Jersey Mike's, Potbelly etc. quickly expanded after Subway's collapse.
So what can we learn from Subway’s fiasco? Companies need to take special consideration of who they want to endorse them. In order to prevent any shocks or unintended effects of bad press, it is critical for businesses to execute comprehensive and frequent background checks on business spokespersons. Companies should therefore be mindful of unfavorable news about ambassadors, regardless of the company's performance, and this can mean making tough decisions and severing ties before reputational damage is too great. Consumers still view Fogle’s brand ambassadorship as a stain on Subway’s legacy to this day.