Consumers choose smaller, better-burger chains over the largest quick-services players in Market Force Information’s recent survey
For the second straight year, Five Guys Burgers and Fries and In-N-Out Burger were named the No. 1 and No. 2 favorite quick-service burger chains in Market Force Information’s survey of American consumers.
Market Force polled 7,600 people in August, asking them to identify their favorite restaurant chains in six categories from among dozens of choices. In the company's first released report, focusing on the hamburger category, Five Guys and In-N-Out were the top two finishers by percentage of respondents saying the chains were their favorite, indexed by system size — the same finish as last year’s survey for all quick-service chains.
Five Guys took the top spot based on the strength of its performance across several restaurant experience attributes. The chain of slightly more than 1,000 restaurants had the highest percentage of respondents rating it as “excellent” in the categories of taste, service, cleanliness and atmosphere. In-N-Out had the highest rating for the overall-value attribute, in which Five Guys finished third.
“It points to the fact that we have so much choice as consumers,” said Janet Eden-Harris, chief marketing officer for Boulder, Colo.-based Market Force. “If you give me a great experience, I’m going to do three things that drive business: I’m going to come back, I’ll spend more when I’m there, and I’ll refer that place to my friends. That’s driving businesses like Five Guys and In-N-Out, and they’re showing that a great product and great experience can trump the lowest price points.”
Five Guys finished with 3.6 percent of the indexed favorite vote, calculated first by totaling the percentage of all respondents who voted for the chain as their favorite, then dividing that by the number of locations the chain has in the United States, to smooth out the discrepancy in available locations across the country for smaller or regional chains, like In-N-Out or Whataburger.
In-N-Out, which operates in California, Arizona and Utah, had an indexed vote of 2.9 percent, followed by Fuddruckers, A&W and Smashburger, with 2.4 percent, 1.8 percent and 1.4 percent respectively. Other chains to get at least 1 percent of the indexed favorite vote were Culver’s with 1.1 percent and Steak n Shake with 1 percent, with a big drop-off coming before the next finisher, Whataburger at 0.39 percent.
The industry’s largest players finished well behind Five Guys and its “better burger” peers, including, in descending order, Carl’s Jr., Wendy’s, Sonic, Burger King, Hardee’s, McDonald’s, Jack in the Box and Dairy Queen.
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Eden-Harris noted that Five Guys not only had the highest percentage of favorite votes when indexed for system size, but the chain also had the highest total favorite votes overall. The brand received 27 percent of the total vote count, followed by Wendy’s with 14 percent, McDonald’s with 13 percent and Burger King with 8 percent.
“Five Guys is being picked as a favorite brand and getting tried more than others, without the aid of any advertisements,” Eden-Harris said. “It’s not just because they’ve expanded like crazy. It points to the fact that they’re doing such a great job on execution, so that when customers eat there, they’re delighted and more likely to refer people and spend more when they’re there.”
The indexing does tend to exaggerate the relative enthusiasm or lack thereof for some brands, she said, meaning that A&W’s relatively high placement in the indexed rankings shows that it has a loyal following among a very small base in a particular region, even if the chain did not rank within the top 10 chains for a single attribute rating. Similarly, because favorite votes for McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s got spread over thousands of locations in the indexing process, they may not be trailing Five Guys and In-N-Out for consumer esteem as much as it may seem.
“It’s just a little bit of mathematics,” Eden-Harris said. “When you index by store count, almost by nature McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s drop toward the bottom because the denominator gets so big and works against them. And the smaller players can jump toward the top.”
It’s more helpful to observe whether chains are trending up or down on Market Force’s list of favorite brands, she said, citing the case of Burger King, which has moved up one spot from No. 13 to No. 12, on the strength of its menu overhaul and corresponding ad campaign.
“There’s a lot of familiarity with a brand as big as Burger King, which it has to overcome,” Eden-Harris said. “They’ve refreshed the menu, but they still have a huge job of convincing to do to get the consumer to give them a try.”
It’s crucial to match a marketing investment as major as Burger King’s this year with a similar outlay of money toward training and facilities, she added. “You spent so much money to get people into the store; for heaven’s sake invest a portion of that in the experience,” she said. “That’s true across the industry.”
Market Force said its 7,600 survey respondents contained a variety of income levels, with half that sample reporting household incomes of more than $50,000 a year. One-quarter of respondents were men and 75 percent were women, while 73 percent of respondents worked full- or part-time. Half the respondents had children and more than two-thirds were married.