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Jeff Larson

Jeff Larson, Global VP Subway

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Trendsetters: Subway's Global VP Jeff Larson Shares What it Takes to be an Effective Marketer Now

Ask Jeff Larson what it takes to be a strong marketer today, and his answer is immediate: "You need to combine the discipline of CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) thinking with the immediacy of retail marketing. There are good lessons to be learned from the CPG and retail worlds, but today you really need both to be an effective marketer."

Jeff Larson's background combines the two. He spent 8 years at Procter & Gamble, and has now also spent 8 years at Subway Restaurants as the Vice President of Global Marketing. Plus, his background with Anderson Consulting (now Accenture), combined with a stint at business school, help him to think critically and analytically while keeping pace with a real time world.

He admits that his world-class CPG background at P&G taught him to run a business via a brand management model. He continues to believe that one has to be a marketing manager and a general manager to have a holistic view of any brand--increasingly one of today's critical foundational skills.

His role at Subway must always take into account retail's "powerful sense of urgency." Jeff adds, "After being used to the CPG cycle where actions emanate from planning and execution, I soon found that the messages Subway put into the market on Tuesday had to bring results by Friday. Retail is active management. It provides an incredible opportunity to experiment, iterate, and fail quickly. You're constantly learning your way to success. We also find that media innovation is a big differentiator for us. We are thinking daily about changes, new insertions, and opportunities to jump on. There's no such thing as launch and leave, then see how it plays."

Retail marketing also underscores a strong operational component, or a direct link between product and experience. "We make promises," says Larson, "but if the store can't deliver on them, the brand suffers. A unique element of retail is that our marketing strategies are sometimes being executed by young, recently-hired employees. Plus, we have to constantly consider as marketers the buy in and sell in with our franchisees. In short, retail forces your hand in thinking through the simplicity of execution."

These marketing issues are further compounded when one takes into account the complexities of Jeff Larson's global role. Subway has a big footprint-- over 44,000 franchise locations in 106 countries, which represents 35 million meals per week in the United States and over 50 million globally.

In many parts of the world, the sandwich chain is a newer brand with just a five or ten-year history. (Subway has been established in the US for almost 50 years.) "Flexibility in a framework" can certainly take on many meanings when interacting with franchisees at a variety of life cycle stages.

He adds, "In some countries, the idea of a sandwich or sub is a new concept." Plus, his competition throughout the world can range from other well-known global quick service restaurants to regional fast food favorites like Gregg's in the UK or Philippines-based Jollibee in Asia to even local street vendors. Larson notes that American QSR brands tend to have cache in many parts of the world. "We are considered an upscale dining occasion. We're bright, new, shiny, clean, sanitary, and often provide a different atmosphere from many local spots."

Larson also acknowledges that his role is less about specific tactics than it is about creating a consistent brand experience around the globe. As a result, programs vary significantly by country; however, he focuses on those concepts and insights that can best deliver the Subway promise of "eat fresh." Subway, of course, is dedicated to the quality of its supply chain wherever its franchises are found, and provides a Brand Standards Guide to create more consistency around the world. "There is a set of core sandwiches," says Larson, "but there are variations based on culture, like turkey meatballs in India."

Subway has had a series of successes around the world--outside of North America, the UK, Australia, Brazil, and Germany are all powerhouses for the brand, while they've seen huge growth in markets ranging from Iceland to Costa Rica, to Colombia and Venezuela. China remains a big opportunity.

In addition to his thoughts on the skills required today to be an effective marketer, Jeff Larson has strong opinions on key contemporary issues--ranging from Big Data and better understanding customer behavior to the untapped potential of mobile.

Jeff Larson sees Big Data as yet another, but very powerful, tool to understand customer behavior, and his interest is going beyond demos to customer psychographics. "Today's landscape is exciting and the access to information is overwhelming. Keep in mind that we are always in the midst of a global conversation. There is no ‘local' program in social media, and all content is now global. There are no walls by country for social networks, so we have to be able to make better social decisions."

Larson does believe that mobile is a big part of the future. Yet, he feels that we've been discussing a mobile future for so long that he's surprised to still see so much untapped potential. He knows that nearly half of quick service restaurant decisions are made just before lunch--generally around 11:30 am in a market like the US. What's near me is a big factor, so a phone's location-based geo targeting can serve offers, news and incentives that extend to a local franchise with an option for lunch to be ready when you arrive. Subway's app for mobile orders works from trial to awareness and extends directly to location and transaction, including wallet capability for payment, which can affect the entire consumer purchase process.

Subway also believes in custom solutions. "We are not the kind of brand," says Larson, "to do sponsorship. We prefer custom programs; nothing as an off-the-shelf package. Most of our content involves native integration that presents Subway as an invited guest or character in a show. Authentic integration not only builds brand presence, but provides messaging relevance." Subway continues to expand lessons from its well-known product integrations and innovative use of media in the US to other key markets.

Jeff Larson is proud of Subway's broad appeal, which he characterizes as spanning the spectrum of life from Tweens to the oldest Baby Boomers, rather than just the typical QSR sweet spot of a 24-year-old male. Subway's many choices are empowering to the young, who get to order their own preferences, to older adults, who may be looking to eat right, or others searching for something fresh and familiar when traveling.

However, he also emphasizes that at Subway's huge scale, anyone who eats out is a viable customer.