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BrandIndex chief executive Ted Marzilli wrote in an email to Nation’s Restaurant News that quick-service brands’ lower average buzz scores as a category could be resulting in part from the segment normalizing in 2013. The segment’s buzz scores had grown significantly the past few years after benefiting from consumers’ trading down from casual dining.

“Additionally, we had several PR incidents in the past six months that have created a lot of attention and potentially dampened scores for the entire category,” he wrote.

Marzilli did not mention specific incidents, but the industry has seen several controversies play out on social media since mid-2012, the last time BrandIndex released this kind of perception ranking. Most notably was the August 2012 flap over Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy’s comments on “traditional marriage,” which ignited online and in-store arguments from proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage.

As a result, Chick-fil-A’s buzz score has taken a hit, falling from a score of 20.7 in the first half of 2012 to 11.5 in the first half of 2013. However, negative buzz was hardly bad for business, as an “appreciation day” that supporters organized last Aug. 1 turned into an “unprecedented” day of record sales for Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A.

Other social-media controversies included political arguments involving Papa John’s Pizza, Applebee’s and Denny’s; social media backlash over a photo of an employee licking a stack of shells at Taco Bell; and “footlong” sandwiches coming up short at Subway.

“Secondly,” Marzilli added, “as we often point out, there are a lot of heavyweight brands in this category who spend a lot of money on advertising and promotion, and it gets harder and harder to stand out from the crowd amongst all of that noise.”

Similar reasons account for why the improvement scores in the first half of 2013 are much lower on average than they were a year earlier, he wrote, adding, “If the tide is running out, gaining some ground is more challenging.”

In the first half of 2013, Green Burrito had the largest improvement in buzz score from a year earlier, with a 0.7-point gain from negative 0.5 to positive 0.2. Rubio’s was next, with a 0.5-point gain from 0.2 to 0.7. Sibling brands Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. tied for No. 3 with a 0.1-point gain, to 3.6 and 2.6, respectively.

By staying flat at a buzz score of 1.3 from the first half of 2012 to the same period in 2013, Church’s Chicken had the fifth-highest change in score.

Improvements in buzz scores were much higher in 2012, with Taco Bell, Little Caesar’s, Wendy’s, Popeyes and Pizza Hut making up the top five with improvements of 5.3, 4.7, 3.4, 2.7 and 2 points, respectively.