SBJ/Jan. 24-30, 2011/Marketing and Sponsorship

Subway signs fresh face Ohno

Subway’s appetite for Olympians continues to grow.

The sandwich chain has signed an endorsement deal with Olympic speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno. The deal puts America’s most-decorated Winter Olympian alongside swimmer Michael Phelps and gymnast Nastia Liukin on Subway’s team of Olympic athletes.

Ohno has already shot a commercial for the sandwich chain.
Terms of the agreement weren’t available, but Subway executives said they expected it to be a long-term partnership.

Subway officials were attracted to Ohno because he was once overweight and subsequently slimmed down, which made him a good fit with their lead spokesman, Jared Fogle. They also liked the fact that he had moved to Los Angeles and had some entertainment aspirations.

“It just seemed like a really good fit for us on a number of fronts,” said Paul Bamundo, Subway’s director of sports marketing. “We thought that with Phelps, it was nice to have the most decorated Summer and Winter Olympians.”

If the partnership with Ohno extends through the 2012 London Games, it will open the door for Subway to use Ohno much the same way they used Phelps during the 2010 Vancouver Games.

Subway featured Phelps in a controversial spot that ran on NBC in 2010. The spot showed Phelps swimming across land toward Vancouver “where the action [was that] winter.” Because Phelps is a summer Olympian, Subway could use him in the ad during the Winter Games without violating International Olympic Committee rules that prevent non-Olympic sponsors from developing ads that show competing Olympic athletes before or during an Olympic Games. The same would hold true with Ohno during the London Games.

If Subway pursued that strategy, it would create a headache for the IOC and U.S. Olympic Committee. The 2010 spot with Phelps irked the IOC’s and USOC’s official restaurant partner, McDonald’s, which pushed both Olympic organizations to wage a public relations campaign against ambush marketing.

“While I don’t support ambush marketing as a strategy, one could certainly say the Phelps campaign got people talking about Subway,” said Gary Pluchino, IMG Consulting’s senior vice president, Olympics. “If they decide to use Apolo the same way they used Michael Phelps, then one could assume the Phelps campaign met Subway’s objectives.”

But Subway executives don’t plan to wait until next summer to use Ohno. The company already shot a commercial with the speedskater in California and plans to release the spot sometime in the next two quarters. “They have great plans, and that’s the great thing about Subway is they activate so well,” said Peter Carlisle, head of Octagon’s Olympic division, which represents both Ohno and Phelps.

Ohno, 28, hasn’t said if he will participate in the Sochi Games in 2014. Bamundo said that if Ohno decided not to compete it wouldn’t affect Subway’s plans to use him.

“I look at it as kind of like the [Michael] Strahan situation for us, where he got bigger and transcended [football] after his NFL career,” Bamundo said.

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