LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Sandwich chain Subway for more than 15 years tied its fortunes to spokesman Jared Fogle and his outsized, 60-inch waist jeans.
That once-successful relationship has dragged the privately held restaurant chain into a child sex and pornography scandal, but branding experts say Subway should be able to distance itself from public anger after Fogle asked a federal judge on Wednesday to accept his guilty plea on charges of possessing child pornography and traveling for illicit paid sex with minors.
Fogle was a college student when he lost 245 pounds eating Subway sandwiches and exercising. He seemed a perfect pitchman - an everyman who won the often-difficult battle of the bulge.
Starting in 2000, he appeared in hundreds of commercials and represented the sandwich chain at restaurants and other events. In 2008, Subway and Fogle celebrated the 10th anniversary of his weight loss with a "Tour de Pants." Now, the 37,000-unit global chain has cut ties with Fogle.
The partnership helped nurture a period of explosive growth at Subway, which now has more units than any other restaurant chain and was on the leading edge of the move toward fresher, healthier food, before overbuilding, competition, changing consumer tastes and other factors contributed to an estimated 3.3 percent sales decline in 2014.
"They did a good job of brain tattooing that relationship," said Karen Post, a branding expert and author of "Brand Turnaround: How Brands Gone Bad Returned to Glory."
"Customers are forgiving to a degree. They know that Jared's mistakes do not represent the core of the company ... but 15 years is a long time," said Post.
"Now he is a symbol of creepy crimes against children," said Post, who added that Subway needs new brand ambassadors.
"It doesn't get much worse," said Bob Goldin, an executive vice president at consulting firm Technomic.
He and other experts said Subway did the right thing by stepping away from Fogle to insulate itself from further fallout.
Companies don't always dump their pitchmen when crisis hits.
While some sponsors dumped professional golfer Tiger Woods after a sex scandal rocked his squeaky clean image in 2009, Nike featured him in a TV spot the following year.
Subway removed Fogle from its website after the initial raid on the spokesman's home in early July and suspended the relationship. On Tuesday, the company officially cut ties.
"They have an obligation to protect the brand and not the pitchman," said Florida-based crisis management expert Ron Sachs. Anyone who was willing to buy sandwiches from Subway probably still is, he said.
"They are not going to lose one sandwich of market share because of this," Sachs predicted.