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Cousins Subs has long been a Milwaukee mainstay, serving up its own version of a hot cheese steak sandwich that has attracted a loyal following for 40 years.
Six states and 150-plus units later, the chain is undergoing a major makeover, changing up its signature offerings, marketing message, menu boards and overall branding efforts. The goal is to differentiate itself in an increasingly competitive quick-service sandwich segment, and to present a consistent look, feel and product as it expands throughout the country.
Justin McCoy, director of marketing, detailed the changes the chain is making as it barrels toward its 40th anniversary celebration that will take place sometime this summer. They include:
Cousins' cheese steak offerings have been the chain's signature item for 30 years. But, McCoy said, the trio offerings -- cheese, Philly and double cheese steak -- weren't authentic Philly-style, as they included marinara sauce.
Cousins created a new traditional Philly, complete with the familiar sautéed green peppers and onions, and repositioned its old Philly as an Italian cheese steak.
"Our Philly has always been a good seller, but it has caused confusion because it's not a traditional version. If we're going to grow, we have to avoid that confusion and position ourselves differently," McCoy said.
Additionally, Cousins added more meat – 50 percent more, in fact – to its subs.
"One thing that differentiates us is we do hot subs and we do them really well. We focused on those and how to enhance them and consumers have been asking us for more meat. We tested with 40, 50, 60 percent more meat on our cheese steaks and decided to go with 50 percent more. That is the number that made it a greater sub; it enhanced the flavor profile," McCoy said.
In total, the company plans to launch 10 new products this year, including gourmet salads, limited time offerings, the return of its popular seafood sub and a new sandwich called the Big Daddy. The Big Daddy includes Cappacolla ham, coteghino bologna, Genoa salami, ham, pepperoni, provolone, black olives, pepperoncinis, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, parmesan asiago, oregano, oil, red wine vinegar and mayo.
"With the Big Daddy, we basically just wanted to build a sub for that person who wants the kitchen sink sub. It's received a lot of buzz so far and has been tremendous for us," McCoy said. "And we have a balance on the lighter side of things with our new premium salads. We have to have products for all of our guests or we're not doing it right."
After about six weeks on the menu, the new items have had a "very positive" impact and are performing beyond expectations. Also, McCoy adds, Cousins' franchisees are happy with their success.
Cousins' message has long been "Better Bread. Better Subs." The company has evolved the tagline into "Better Bread. Better Subs. Better Day," that will be executed in advertising and public relations plans for both consumer and franchise sales campaigns throughout this year. Also, the new message is presented in a smiley face shape under the brand name.
"We want people to understand when you come to Cousins, you're going to have a better day because of it. Today's customer wants to feel good about where they're spending their dollar because their dollar doesn't go as far," McCoy said.
The company is investing heavily in a variety of in-store marketing assets, which includes the installation of contemporary new menu boards and permanent table tents at each location.
Cousins has worked with Stir, an ad firm out of Milwaukee, to put together its new campaign and look, and Minneapolis-based FAME PR firm to help communicate the changes. An objective with the new marketing scheme is to slightly shift the brand's target demographic – from 25- to 54-year-olds to 18- to 49-year-olds.
"We want to take the best of what we've done for 40 years and combine it with 'younging' things up a bit. And we want to be consistent across the system," McCoy said. "It's just really about communicating to our guests that we're going to deliver a better experience when they come in."
As such, Cousins has also released two new TV ads to promote its new efforts, including "Board Room" seen here:
Finally, as part of Cousins' new marketing strategy, the brand plans to increase its social media presence. For example, when customers begged the company to bring back its seafood sub, Cousins offered them a gift card via Facebook to engage and attract more fans.
Aside from product development and a marketing refresh, one of Cousins' current initiatives is to reinvest in its franchise partners. For starters, the company rolled out new menu boards across the system. The new indoor and outdoor menu boards feature a contemporary aesthetic that focuses on the placement of premium products.
Now highlighting product descriptions rather than images, the entire Cousins Subs menu is presented to the consumer, with hot items on one side and cold items on the other side.
The change was made to establish consistency across the system and to shift to more of a deli feel.
"The menu boards were foundational. We had a couple of different ones in our system and our new look didn't fit that. We wanted a more mature look to our boards," McCoy said.
New Jersey-based Visual Graphics Systems (VGS) developed the system and equipment for the new boards, and helped facilitate a study on consumer behavior to solidify product placement. The boards are flexible and can be changed quickly if need be. Although they're not digital, McCoy said the company is not opposed to implementing such a system in the future, but these boards were more practical right now for the company to invest in for its franchisees.
Philanthropy, other initiatives
Cousins will launch a new website mid-year. There will be a merchandising element with the launch, not to be used as a profit center, but rather to raise funds for the chain's new Make It Better Foundation.
The foundation has yet to be formally launched, but McCoy said it will focus on philanthropic causes, something founders Bill Specht and Jim Sheppard were passionate about and current president, COO Christine Specht (Bill's daughter) would like to continue.
Additionally, the brand will accelerate its loyalty and mobile efforts this year, as well as step up its online promotions. The company has been offering online ordering since 2008.
Finally, the company anticipates a 10 percent annual sales growth with these changes, and plans to open at least 15 new stores this year, some in new markets such as Indianapolis, Florida and Oklahoma.
"We pretty much rolled out new menu boards, new items, and a new campaign in six months. It took everyone – the sub makers, franchisees, cashiers, etc. – and a lot of time and energy," McCoy said. "And we still have so much more to do. But we're very pleased already and we're reinvigorated and have a lot of energy to keep going."
Check out Cousins' new logo and some new products here.
Alicia Kelso /
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.