Subway -- the multi-national fast-food sub-shop giant -- has shot themselves in the foot. Again. The goal of their latest promotion was to win the loyalty of parents of grade school-aged kids -- to increase market share, revenue and profits. It was supposed to be a simple exercise in business marketing and promotion.
The outcome, however, was far different. By banning homeschooled kids -- children who are educated at home, as an alternative to public schooling -- Subway has ignited a firestorm of opposition from a vocal segment of the marketplace. Homeschoolers, offended by the ban, spontaneously -- and almost literally overnight -- organized a national Subway boycott that already has Subway's corporate spokesman hunkering down. All this happened over a holiday weekend, a time when people usually have better things to do. Imagine the impact today when millions of homeschooling parents are back in front of their computers, and discover what Subway has done to them.
America currently has something on the order of three million children being homeschooled; those children represent an adult purchasing population -- including parents and grandparents -- of well over five million often affluent people. Homeschooling parents are frequently supported by their local churches, and many other potential Subway customers -- who are not themselves homeschoolers -- still admire the self-reliant spirit reflected by these parents. These Americans might willingly join in a boycott against firms that show disrespect for homeschoolers.
Subway, by this careless -- or intentional -- ban on homeschooled children, could have easily offended 10 million American adults. Oops.
But why is this snub at homeschoolers even an issue? Homeschoolers face constant harassment from "officials" at the state and local school board level, as well as from teachers unions, and they are therefore more than a bit sensitive to perceived commercial discrimination. By banning homeschooled children from their essay contest, Subway has -- accidentally or intentionally -- placed themselves firmly in the "enemy's camp."
School boards generally oppose homeschooling, and the National Educational Association and other teachers unions relentlessly lobby against homeschooling, for two reasons.
First, homeschooling parents -- by teaching three million kids nationwide -- replace the equivalent of 100,000 union teachers.
Second, Federal and State public school financing is based on per-enrolled student -- and both the teachers unions and the school boards see homeschooling parents as literally taking federal funds out of their coffers or paychecks.
True, these schools don't have to provide services for homeschooled children, but with a strong entitlement mentality, the school boards and teachers unions adopt the position that they are "owed" this money. They fight in every way they can to hang onto every last dollar, and if this means opposing homeschooling or school vouchers, so be it.
But how did Subway get into this mess? Subway's "Every Sandwich Tells a Story" essay contest, conducted in cooperation with the quickly repentant Scholastic News Service -- which sells strongly into the homeschool market and which immediately and publicly apologized when this issue came to their attention -- specifically bans homeschooled kids from the contest. The remarkably poorly-spelled rules read:
NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. Contest is open only to legal residents of the Untied (sic) States who are currently over the age of 18 and have children who attend elementary, private or parochial schools that serve grades PreK-6. No home schools will be accepted.
You'd think Subway would learn. In late 2004, 50 of their German franchisees created a table-top in-store ad that showed an obese Statue of Liberty. This promotion was tied into the German release of the film "Super Size Me," and it boldly mocked Americans' proclivity for eating fattening fast foods. Subway's decision-makers apparently thought that nobody outside their German franchised Subway stores would notice this anti-American in-store ad -- but within days, Congressman Tom DeLay was denouncing Subway from the well of the House, waving the table-top ad before the cameras for all to see. Outraged Americans -- who objected to an American company publicly mocking America in Europe, just to make a quick Euro -- quickly abandoned Subway in droves.
With this PR blunder, Subway quite possibly helped kindle the skyrocketing growth of Quiznos, a competing sub-sandwich shop that caught on almost immediately after Subway's "gaffe."
Faced with 24/7 media coverage and a virtual Internet firestorm of protest that was melting their market share, Subway's response was glacial. The story simmered for close to two weeks before Subway's spokespersons began to try to turn down the heat -- but by then, the damage had been done.
History may be repeating itself. Subway's partner, Scholastic, quickly backed away from the contest, publishing this apology on a number of homeschool websites and discussion boards:
"Our intention was never to make independent schooled children feel discriminated against or excluded from this specific promotion ... and will make sure eligibility is open to everyone in future promotions."
Except to say, "Unfortunately, I do not have enough information at this point to respond," when asked to comment on this homeschooling brouhaha, Subway's spokesman, Kevin Kane did respond to this gathering crisis. If history does repeat itself, Subway will stonewall for another couple of weeks before trying to ease the pain of this self-inflicted wound. And, as with their 2004 "Fat American" in-store promotion, which backfired so painfully, their response may yet again be too little, too late.
Ned Barnett is a political strategist and the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications in Las Vegas, Nevada. A PR crisis management expert, Barnett has been a university professor and has written nine published books on public relations and marketing communications, and writes a regular column on crisis PR for the International Association of Business Communicators.