Taco Bell’s Cantina Bell menu has been very positive for the chain’s perception of quality among consumers, according to research from YouGov BrandIndex.
BrandIndex, which measures consumer perceptions of hundreds of brands in the United States, found that Taco Bell’s “quality scores,” or the measure of survey respondent’s opinion of the brand’s quality, rose steadily since the July 5 launch of Cantina Bell, significantly narrowing its gap with fast-casual rival Chipotle Mexican Grill and overtaking the average perception of the quick-service segment’s overall quality score.
Taco Bell’s quality score — which can range from negative 100 to positive 100, with zero indicating a completely neutral perception among consumers — rose from 14.4 on July 5 to a high of 25.9 on Sept. 20, before finishing BrandIndex’s study with a 24.8 quality score on Oct. 1.
BrandIndex calculates a quality score by interviewing 5,000 consumers each weekday and asking, “Does this brand represent high quality or low quality?” Negative responses are subtracted from positive responses, and a moving average is calculated every day and tracked.
“This is good news for Taco Bell because it looks like the new menu is the primary driver of higher quality perceptions,” said Ted Marzilli, senior vice president of New York-based BrandIndex. “It’s absolutely statistically significant, and they’re not only improving their scores, but improving them versus their peers.”
Chipotle began the same period with a 31.4 quality score on July 5, trended downward for most of the summer before modestly recovering, with a low score of 26.3 on Aug. 31. The brand ended the period with a 28.1 quality score on Oct. 1.
BrandIndex also calculated an average for the national quick-service segment, which excluded Taco Bell for comparative reasons but included Pizza Hut, Arby’s, Papa John’s, Domino’s, KFC, McDonald’s and others. That segment average began well above Taco Bell on July 5, with a 20.2 quality score. Its highest score came on the last day of the period at 24.6, which was just below that of Taco Bell’s ending quality score.
Marzilli stressed that the perception data are not zero-sum, meaning Taco Bell’s gains in quality perception have not come directly from Chipotle’s slight decline in the metric.
“People don’t make an either-or decision,” Marzilli said. “What the data show is that more people are rating Taco Bell positively. But some Mexican-food eaters are thinking about those brands in context and potentially thinking of the two brands on a relative basis.”
Last May, during a presentation at the Morgan Stanley Retail and Restaurant Conference, Taco Bell chief executive Greg Creed shared that Cantina Bell actually performed better in the one test market out of two that had a bigger footprint for Chipotle.
“Chipotle kind of acts as a context for this menu,” Creed said.
Nine months ago, Marzilli would have been skeptical of Creed’s notion that Taco Bell benefited from Chipotle setting the standard of what high-quality, fast Mexican food looked like, the BrandIndex senior vice president said. But he admits that Taco Bell seems to have successfully challenged Chipotle’s hold on this niche, as well as consumers’ long-held perceptions of Taco Bell.
“It makes sense on the one hand that people have been exposed to higher-quality Mexican [from Chipotle] and believe it can exist, but I would have been surprised,” Marzilli said. “It’s hard for Taco Bell to achieve this because they’ve been the value player for so long. I still think of 99-cent tacos when I think of them. … But they seem to have done it.”
Taco Bell recently said line extensions of Cantina Bell are coming, including a new quesadilla this November and upgraded steak options early next year.
Since Taco Bell’s quality scores have risen steadily since the introduction of Cantina Bell, Marzilli speculated that the menu indeed contributes to the improvement, though the link is not definite because respondents were not asked specifically about Cantina Bell’s influence. It is likely that quality scores would continue to rise for Taco Bell if the line extensions coming for Cantina Bell also drive incremental traffic and satisfy the majority of those new customers, he said.
“Quality isn’t cyclical,” Marzilli said. “It is dependent upon advertising, which can influence people, and what they experience in the stores. The thing that might fluctuate is the sheer number of people in the stores, which may be cyclical based on advertising. If you draw more people and please maybe 80 percent of them, you’ll see improvement in quality perceptions over time.”
For its part, Chipotle has achieved consistent sales growth despite a menu that sticks to a limited offering that is well executed. But Marzilli speculated that a competitor the size of Taco Bell challenging the brand in this manner might necessitate a menu move aimed at reminding consumers that Chipotle is still different.
“If you’re Chipotle, you have to take this challenge seriously,” Marzilli said. “They had a great positioning for years. If someone like Taco Bell encroaches on their space like this, I’m not sure if they go even higher-end or if they have to do something more interesting to mix things up a bit.”
Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell, with 5,670 units, according to Nation’s Restaurant News’ Top 200 census, is a subsidiary of Louisville, Ky.-based Yum! Brands Inc., which also operates or franchises KFC and Pizza Hut.