In a year where quick-service restaurants’ perceptions have trended downward as a category, Subway and Wendy’s once again finished No. 1 and No. 2 in YouGov BrandIndex’s mid-year ranking of brands based on its proprietary “buzz score.”
Subway and Wendy’s had buzz scores of 29.7 and 19.5, respectively, through the first half of 2013, down from 41.7 and 28.5 a year earlier.
BrandIndex calculates its buzz score by surveying thousands of consumers each weekday about hundreds of brands, asking, “If you’ve heard anything about the brand in the last two weeks … was it positive or negative?” Negative responses are subtracted from positive ones, and a moving average is calculated on a scale between negative 100 and positive 100, with zero denoting a neutral perception of the brand.
Rounding out the top five best-perceived brands of the first half of 2013 were Pizza Hut, KFC and McDonald’s, with buzz scores of 16.4, 12.8 and 11.6, respectively. Last year, brands with the No. 3 through No. 5 buzz scores were Papa John’s, Pizza Hut and Chick-fil-A, with scores of 26.5, 25.9 and 20.7, respectively.
Subway has topped the mid-year list of buzz scores for the third consecutive year, BrandIndex reported.
QSR buzz coming back to earth
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.
Big brands lead casual-dining rankings
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.