Subway led all restaurant brands in the United States in positive consumer perceptions in 2012, the third consecutive year that it garnered the highest annual average “buzz score” from YouGov BrandIndex.
However, Chick-fil-A and Papa John’s Pizza, which ranked in the top five in 2011, fell out of the top group in 2012 after the companies’ executives made public comments that set off widespread negative reactions.
Although Subway, the world’s largest restaurant chain, has recently dealt with its own social-media controversy over the length of its "Footlong" sandwiches, its annual buzz score last year of 40 far outpaced the No. 2 finisher, Wendy’s, which earned a 28.
Dairy Queen and Dunkin’ Donuts made their first entry into the top five best-perceived brands list last year with annualized buzz scores of 26 and 24, respectively. Pizza Hut held on to its spot in the top five by tying with Dunkin’ Donuts with a score of 24.
To calculate its proprietary buzz score, New York-based YouGov BrandIndex interviewed 5,000 consumers about 44 restaurant brands each weekday and asked, “If you’ve heard anything about this brand in the past two weeks, was it positive or negative?” Negative responses were subtracted from positive ones, and a moving average was calculated between negative 100 and positive 100, with a zero rating denoting a neutral consumer perception.
Ted Marzilli, senior vice president of BrandIndex, said Subway and Wendy’s once again earned the industry’s highest buzz scores by cultivating and advertising food quality — and in the case of Subway, healthfulness — as their points of differentiation.
“They have positioned themselves historically as being different from the other guys in their segment,” Marzilli said. “That still resonates, and customers for the most part believe it enough that there’s a difference there [in buzz scores].”
Chick-fil-A, Papa John's draw public ire
Yet Chick-fil-A and Papa John’s experienced annual declines in their buzz scores in 2012 as widespread backlash resulted from separate incidents in which their leaders made unpopular comments.
Chick-fil-A president and chief operating officer Dan Cathy set off a social-media firestorm when he gave an interview on July 2 to the Baptist Press and said the brand was “guilty as charged” in supporting a traditional view of “biblical marriage,” meaning only between a man and a woman. Advocates for same-sex marriage advocated a boycott of Chick-fil-A, which prompted a counter-protest of supporters to hold a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” on Aug. 1, which set a single-day sales record for the chain.
Marzilli noted that while Chick-fil-A’s annual buzz score fell out of the top five in 2012, the fact that the brand’s sales held up indicates that the negative perceptions driving Chick-fil-A’s buzz score slide came mostly from people who probably already knew about the brand’s stance against same-sex marriage and did not eat there much.
“What’s tricky is that among the general population, it sticks with people for quite a while, but for Chick-fil-A’s business prospects, it’s a more nuanced story,” Marzilli said. “A lot of people who were upset weren’t already customers or may have been disinclined to do business with Chick-fil-A.”
Papa John’s, on the other hand, had a bad November, when founder and chief executive John Schnatter’s post-Election Day comments to a college in Florida were picked up nationally because they included one section in which Schnatter suggested franchisees likely would make many employees part-time staff to avoid covering them under mandates in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. A week later, a U.S. District Court judge certified a class-action lawsuit against Papa John’s alleging the brand sent half a million unsolicited text messages.
“Papa John’s scores were hurt right around the election and the immediate aftermath, and the class-action lawsuit happened in the middle of that,” Marzilli said. “Those events definitely impacted the brand, not to the extremes of Chick-fil-A’s [perception hit], but enough to dislodge Papa John’s from the top five.”
Taco Bell, Little Caesars improve perceptions
Other brands significantly improved their perceptions with consumers in 2012, including top gainers Taco Bell and Little Caesars, which each garnered a four-point gain in the year.
Taco Bell’s annualized buzz score rose to 16 from 12 last year. The brand had battled back from negative perceptions about the quality of its seasoned beef, stemming from a consumer lawsuit brought against the brand and dismissed in 2011. Taco Bell went on to introduce some breakthrough products in 2012, however, including the Doritos Locos Tacos and the Cantina Bell menu.
“Taco Bell recovered nicely from a negative the year before,” Marzilli said, “and they’ve hit quite well on their two or three most recent new-product introductions and campaigns.”
Little Caesars’ buzz score in 2012 went from 10 to 14, he said, based largely on the strength of the chain’s return to national TV advertising, with new commercials promoting its $5 Hot-N-Ready pizza.
“I think advertising does work … but it’s a different question if you ask, ‘Have I changed your opinion?’” Marzilli said. “When brands advertise more, it can improve buzz in a significant way, but that’s only the first hurdle and often the easiest hurdle.”
Getting into customers’ consideration set against competitors who advertise more often would be the challenge for Little Caesars, he said. “That’s the challenge for a brand that hasn’t advertised in some time. You have to hit people repeatedly to stay top of mind.”
The other big gainers for the year were Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen and Jimmy John’s, which each improved their annualized buzz scores two points compared with 2011, and Wendy’s, which gained one point from a year earlier.