Subway’s Discrimination Problem: A Good Case for Updated Brand Guidelines

Screen shot 2013-02-18 at 4.56.45 PMOne of the greatest concerns of franchise business models is how trouble caused by one owner/operator can damage other locations nearby or the brand image as a whole.

Subway saw this over the Valentine’s Day weekend when the owner of a Subway shop in Angers, France decided – on his own – to discriminate against same sex couples when he launched a Valentine’s Day special available only to straights.

Citing the current status of gay marriage in France, the franchise owner defended his actions and invoked his freedom of expression in a note beneath the sandwich deal.

“Discrimination: No, the marriage for all law has advanced, but has yet to be ratified by the Senate. Until then, I’ll use my freedom of expression.” (Click over to French-language website Eteignez Votre Ordinateur to view images of the poster.)

According to French newspaper the Liberation, Subway’s corporate offices intervened after photos of the offer were widely circulated on social media, and the restaurant was swiftly closed Friday. In a statement released the same day, Subway France apologized and noted that franchise locations are managed independently. Following an influx of negative comments, Subway France also successfully took to Twitter to address concerns and apologized for the discriminatory special in a post on its Facebook page Saturday morning, writing:

The SUBWAY brand is strongly committed to maintaining the values ​​of diversity and inclusiveness in its restaurants around the world and does not endorse in any discrimination of any kind.We apologize to all those people who felt offended by the individual promotional initiative for Valentine’s Day of a restaurant in Angers, France.

Unfortunately, the discrimination of one owner impacted other owner/operators in France. Angers-area Subway restaurant also felt the blowback despite having nothing to do with the offense, French-language publication Ouest-France reports. Following an influx of “hateful and virulent” comments, the franchise location was forced to close its Facebook page and issue a press release, denouncing any association with the other Angers Subway that offered the heterosexuals-only deal.

While France is on its way to legalizing gay marriage, following the passage of the bill in the National Assembly Tuesday, the legislation must also be ratified by the Senate before the law can take effect. The marriage for all bill, which was first introduced in October, will go before the upper house of French Parliament on April 2, and is expected to pass.

This marks yet another example of why brands – especially franchise models – need clear social media and brand guidelines for all their owner/operators. While it is necessary to give  some promotional leeway so operators can engage in community-specific programs and tailor their marketing efforts to their location, everything the individual operators do impacts the brand as a whole. So, if you haven’t updated your branding, marketing and social media guidelines to fit current trends, tools, tactics, risks and the changing zeitgeist, you may want to do so.

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