Port Of Subs Seeks Differentiation

Sunday, January 07, 2007

WHO: Kristin Cronhardt, vice president of marketing for Port of Subs. WHAT: Port of Subs, a 30-plus-year-old sandwich chain based in Reno, Nevada, needed a point of distinction in the highly competitive submarine sandwich segment. GOAL: Reposition the brand and prepare it for serious growth in the next several years. WHEN: Already underway and expected to be complete over next year to year–and–a–­half. NUMBER OF UNITS: 147 COST: Between $30,000 and $80,000, depending on the age of the store. Stores built under the 2000 model will only shoulder the cost of paint and graphic elements. You know you're in trouble when customers in new markets aren't sure whether you sell sandwiches or boats. That was what Port of Subs was up against two years ago when Kristin Cronhardt joined the chain as vice president of marketing. "Outside the Reno and Las Vegas markets, people don't necessarily know what our brand is," Cronhardt says. "They think it's a boat shop and other odd things." As a player in one of the most competitive segments in quick-serve and with plans to double its size over the next two to three years, Port of Subs knew it had to make it abundantly clear to consumers what the brand stood for. To that end, Port of Subs conducted a two-day brand-positioning workshop with key franchisees and corporate executives last March. Some key findings were unearthed during the session. The brand's distinct service kept coming up—i.e. the chain slices its meats and cheeses fresh to order. "Even though our customers are aware of it, they didn't necessarily associate that as our point of difference versus our competition," Cronhardt says. From that workshop, the company decided it was time to update the somewhat sterile blue-and-white restaurant design that faced its last change in 2000, by incorporating some tan color schemes. It hired Seattle-based M3 Messenger Corp., which went to work discovering what customers felt was important about the brand. The firm learned customers considered the color blue a keeper, so the Port of Subs maintained some blue elements in its logo. A retro-looking chef character, known to company insiders as The Dude, was introduced to emphasize that sandwich prep starts with fresh slicing. Port of Subs also changed the interior of its restaurants from blue-and-white to a warmer earth-tone scheme. Vinyl chairs were replaced with wooden ones. Graphic elements, including a shot of The Dude, now decorate the walls. A branding wall outlining what makes a Port of Subs sliced-to-order sandwich so good appeared. Rather than the old backlit menuboards, new stores have menu panels. In addition, the new Port of Subs feature televisions and free wireless internet access. The company also went through an agency review. Its new agency, Innerwest Advertising and Public Relations, decided to further hone in on the slice-fresh angle, creating an ad campaign that revolves around a new slice-fresh language. "Customers come into the store, and they really have their own vernacular," Cronhardt says. A "quick-slice" translates into a to-go item, for example, while the staff are called "master slicers." The unique campaign included radio, billboard, and television spots, depending on market penetration in certain areas. A corporate-owned prototype opened in Tempe, Arizona, in May 2005. The chain is currently revamping several more of its corporate shops. "We made a commitment to franchisees that we will go through and remodel our corporate stores first, sit back and take two or three months to see what the results are and the response. Obviously, if we don't get the sales lift we expect, then it doesn't make sense to move forward," Cronhardt says. "We have a gut feeling, and looking at what we've seen and heard from other concepts that are doing remodels, you automatically get a bump." The first round of remodels is to be complete in March. By June, Cronhardt says, the company should have enough information in hand to move forward on franchise remodeling. She expects some franchisees will be changing their stores by next summer. As with other chains, there are the early adopter franchisees eager for change and there are those more reluctant to make any significant changes. "If it does what we think it will do, it's going to be an easy sales job for us because we'll have actual numbers," Cronhardt says.

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