The simplicity of Subway

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When I saw that Subway was the top-ranked brand in our 2012 U.S. Brand Simplicity Index, I wasn’t surprised. But how has Subway beat out its competitors in an industry where the brand experience must be quick, easy and simple just to survive?

The explanation itself is simple. There are three elements of the Subway brand experience that contribute to its simplicity: its product offering, in-store experience and consistency.

Product offering

Subway gets it right from the start with a simple product offering. While its menu may be more extensive than the three options offered at In-N-Out Burger, it’s simple enough that it does not overwhelm customers. There is no secret menu reserved for insiders, and all options are clearly laid out for customers. The chain offers sandwiches, soups and salads, most of which are made from the same base of ingredients, which has the added benefit of keeping operations efficient.

In-store experience

The in-store experience is defined by a straightforward design that ensures customers don’t have to go through any unnecessary steps while placing their order. This process is easy to follow as employees walk customers through the making of their sandwich, ingredient-by-ingredient.

Not only is this process straightforward, it also brings to life Subway’s brand promise—fresh, healthy food made your way. The assembly line-style sandwich counter gives customers full view of the fresh ingredients being used and their sandwich being made. This makes it easy to craft orders and make adjustments according to their tastes.


There are basic elements of the in-store experience that are unchanging across locations—including the menu, assembly line-style sandwich bar and chip brands offered. But there is another, more sensory element the brand taps into: all Subway stores have a very distinct smell. I have often gotten out of my car and found my nostrils greeted with that sweet scent and spotted a Subway I had not seen.

Immediately, the Subway experience floods my mind. I can imagine exactly what the store will look like, what ingredient choices I’ll have and what my sandwich will taste like. I know if I walk through that door, I will have a simple and straightforward experience with the Subway brand, and get a delicious sandwich out of it.

Subway has simplicity nailed. But it’s not always that easy. As you think about how to simplify your brand, keep the following in mind:

  • Achieving simplicity takes work. Subway has to be very deliberate about what menu items it offers, ensuring anything it introduces does not threaten the simplicity of its menu and process.
  • Simplicity itself is not enough. While simplicity is important, brands still need to stand for something distinct. Subway uses the ordering process to bring its brand promise to life within the in-store experience
  • Simple doesn’t mean boring. Simple and simplistic are very different things. Subway turns a basic transaction—ordering food—into an experience for its customers, engaging them in the sandwich-making process, and more importantly in the brand itself.

Katie Conway is a strategist for Siegel+Gale’s Los Angeles office.

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