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BrandIndex broke out the casual-dining segment of the industry this year for the first time in its mid-year rankings, and four of the top five spots belong to the sector’s largest chains.

Olive Garden lead the segment with a buzz score of 23.3 for the first half of 2013, despite the fact that it jettisoned its longtime slogan, “When you’re here, you’re family,” last year. BrandIndex noted that its new marketing campaign has advertised its under-575-calorie dishes as “the lighter side of delicious,” with positive results.

Red Lobster, also owned by Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants, was next, with a buzz score of 20.6. BrandIndex attributed the score in part to its remodeling program and introduction of more menu items under the $15 price point.

Applebee’s, Golden Corral and Chili’s finished with the third, fourth and fifth buzz scores for the first half of the year, at 16.4, 11.1 and 10.9, respectively.

Marzilli noted that big chains like Olive Garden and Red Lobster have earned the highest buzz scores for the first half of the year even though sales have been uneven — the two casual-dining giants registered negative same-store sales in three out of the first five months of the calendar year. That is partially because those chains are still the heaviest advertisers in the category, and “they have the largest footprint so [they] are relevant to a larger percentage of U.S. consumers,” he noted.

Like the quick-service segment, casual dining experienced a moderate general decline in buzz from 2012 to 2013, which also lead to more muted improvement scores.

Hooters, thanks in part to its new “Step into Awesome” marketing campaign, had the highest buzz score gain compared with the first half of 2013, improving 1.2 points from negative 3.2 to negative 2.0. El Torito’s buzz score improved 0.9 points and turned positive in the first half of the year, going from negative 0.7 to positive 0.2.

Taco Cabana finished with the No. 3 improvement in buzz score, rising 0.6 points from 0.1 to 0.8. HomeTown Buffet and Pei Wei Asian Diner tied for No. 4, each increasing 0.3 points, to 1.1 and 1.2, respectively.

Contact Mark Brandau at mark.brandau@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN