Some of the industry’s largest restaurant chains finished atop YouGov BrandIndex’s rankings of the highest average “buzz scores” of 2013, but the size of brands’ marketing budgets alone did not determine how they performed, the research firm said.

Subway led all quick-service chains in BrandIndex’s study, which measured how positive or negative consumers’ perceptions for more than 40 brands were for all of 2013. While the sandwich chain is the largest brand in the restaurant industry by unit count and a heavy advertiser, it also benefited from positive news and word-of-mouth, BrandIndex found.

To calculate its proprietary buzz score, New York-based BrandIndex interviewed thousands of consumers each weekday about hundreds of brands and asked whether they had heard anything positive or negative about a brand in the past few weeks. Negative scores are subtracted from positive scores, and a moving average is produced between negative 100 and positive 100, with a zero score denoting neutral brand perceptions.

Subway’s 29.4 average buzz score for all of 2013 led quick-service competitors significantly. The No. 2 finisher, Wendy’s, had a score of 19.0, while Pizza Hut, Burger King and Chick-fil-A rounded out the top five with scores of 16.4, 12.0 and 11.9, respectively.

In a separate casual-dining ranking, Olive Garden had the highest average buzz score for 2013, with 22.1. Red Lobster finished second, with 19.0, followed by Applebee’s, with 16.5, and Chili’s and Cracker Barrel, which tied for No. 4 with 10.5.

Despite the strength of its "Step Into Awesome" campaign, Hooters' average buzz score fell to -1.4.BrandIndex chief executive Ted Marzilli said buzz rankings do not match the order of largest restaurant chains identically because heavy advertising is not enough to drive positive perceptions all by itself.

“There is so much advertising out there. Consumers are getting just bombarded, so it’s hard to break through the clutter and have consumers focus on your brand,” Marzilli said. “There’s some argument for people getting desensitized to all the marketing out there.”

That could be one reason why the restaurant chains with the biggest improvements in buzz score from 2012 to 2013 only saw scores increase a little bit, he speculated. In quick service, only three brands registered gains in buzz scores for all of 2013: Green Burrito, with a 1-point uptick to a 0.2 average buzz score; Rubio’s, which improved 0.3 points to a 0.7 average score; and Wienerschnitzel, which inched up just 0.1 points to a 0.9 score.

In casual dining, Hooters had a 1-point improvement for 2013, based on the strength of new branding to appeal beyond males and a “Step Into Awesome” marketing campaign, but its average buzz score for the year still fell on the side of slightly unfavorable perceptions, at negative 1.4.

The segment’s other improvers included El Torito, rising 0.8 points to a 0.4 average score; Taco Cabana, up 0.7 points to a 0.9 score; HomeTown Buffet, which increased 0.5 points to a 1.2 score, and Pei Wei Asian Diner, up just 0.1 points to a 1.1 score.

“It is hard to say definitively, but if these brands aren’t big spenders in their categories or getting profiled a lot in the press, they’re generating their [buzz score] improvements in word-of-mouth,” Marzilli said. “They might spend more in their home markets, even if they don’t have a national footprint. That makes a noticeable difference to people in the market.”