When a foot is really 11 inches

Subway is famous for their “foot-long sub”. It is one of the promises the brand stands on. They have talked about their “foot-long subs” for years. They’ve run ads about it. They have even trademarked the term, so we could be forgiven for expecting that the subs that carry that name would be – well, a foot long (that’s 12 inches or 30.48 cm for the metrically minded amongst us).

But not so fast.

It seems a Perth teenager took the time to measure his sub and it came up short. An inch short. And when he posted it to his Facebook page asking for an explanation Subway eventually responded:

“With regards to the size of the bread and calling it a footlong, ‘Subway Footlong’ is a registered trademark as a descriptive name for the sub sold in Subway restaurants and not intended to be a measurement of length.”

In a test by the New York Post four out of seven “foot-long subs” purchased around New York were under the promised foot in length.

Based on Subway’s further explanation that, “The length of the bread baked in the restaurant cannot be assured each time as the proofing process may vary slightly each time in the restaurant”, it is probably a safe bet that Subway will shortly be adding an asterisk to all uses of the term. But here is the rub – an asterisk next to your promise doesn’t modify the promise, it just tells me you should have made a different one!

Truth be told, I don’t really care whether Subway subs are 11 inches, a foot or a foot and a half. What I do care about is them deliberately making promises they know they can’t keep. And at this point I’d say we can assume that they knew a fair number of their subs were sub-par when it comes to length.

Deconstructing the behind the scenes areas that would be involved in keeping the “foot-long” promise gets to the heart of why it is so important to think about your ability to keep the promises you make.

Let’s start with the business model. Subway is a franchise, so the amount of control on day-to-day operational things like the length of the bread used in the subs is hard to monitor and correct. So making a promise about something as specific as the length of the sub was always going to be a problem.

Training and processes can help with that, but that would need to go down beyond the top tier of the franchise owners and management. After all, it’s the employees of each store that bake the bread and who would need to monitor the length and be given authority to discard anything undersized (or perhaps collect and donate to food charity at the end of every day).

No promise is taken seriously internally unless there are reasons to do so. Incentives and awards by corporate to keep the bread at a foot long, or in store free offers if your sub is undersized would create more focus around the issue.

Of course none of the above would be necessary if the promise hadn’t been made in the first place. But not only was it made, it’s one of the pillars Subway has built its brand on. So while I am trying to be more understanding of the human side of making promises (noted here), this one is hard to give a hall pass on.

It’s never been more important to think about these things. After all, you are just a Perth teenager with a Facebook account away from being held to account for keeping the promises you make.

See you next week.

Michel is an independent brand advocate dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. She also publishes a blog at michelhogan.com. You can follow Michel on Twitter @michelhogan.

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