As of this year's first half, Subway continues to be the best-perceived quick-serve restaurant chain, while Olive Garden is best-perceived among casual dining chains, according to new rankings from YouGov's BrandIndex.
This marks the first time that BrandIndex has released rankings for casual dining chains.
BrandIndex's restaurant rankings are based on its "buzz" score, derived from daily surveys asking respondents: “If you've heard anything about the brand in the last two weeks, through advertising, news or word of mouth, was it positive or negative?” A score of 100 represents equal positive and negative buzz. Scores above 100 indicate more positive than negative feedback, and scores below 100 indicate more negative than positive feedback.
In the QSR rankings, Subway's continued perception leadership (2012 marked its third consecutive year of being #1 in BrandIndex's year-end rankings) was assisted in first-half 2013 by its Super Bowl spots, including one featuring star athletes congratulating spokesperson Jared Fogle for keeping his weight off for 15 years (and promoting Subway's "Fresh Fit Meals"). Other campaigns, including its summer "Avocado Love" TV spot, have also driven positive buzz.
Subway's average buzz score in the first half was 29.7 -- which is actually down significantly from its exceptionally high average score of 41.7 in 1H 2012.
The other QSR brands that made the top five also nevertheless saw significant score declines versus last year's first half.
Wendy's -- #2 for three consecutive years -- held that ranking in this year's first half, with a score of 19.5, but that's down from 28.5 in 2012's first half.
Pizza Hut ranks #3 (up one place versus first-half 2012), but its 16.4 score is down from 25.9 a year ago.
KFC (12.8) and McDonald's (11.6), which were not in the top five in first-half 2012, now rank #4 and #5. However, those scores are down from 16.2 and 16.6, respectively, a year ago.
(Papa John's and Chick-fil-A, which ranked #3 and #5 respectively in last year's first half, didn't make the top five in the current rankings.)
What's behind the declines in scores for leading QSR brands since 2012's first half?
Ted Marzilli, SVP and managing director for BrandIndex, says that a number of "crises" related to food handling and cleanliness at some brands may have had some negative impact on QSRs in general. In addition, as the many QSR brands have become increasingly aggressive about rolling out new products and advertising and marketing campaigns, it's becoming more difficult to break through with messages that resonate strongly enough to significantly boost consumer perceptions of a brand, he notes.
In fact, across the board, few QSR brands showed significant score improvements, the most notable being Green Burrito (score rose from -0.5 in 1H 2012 to 0.2 in 1H 2013) and Rubio's (up to 0.7 from 0.2 a year ago).
Casual Dining Perception Leaders
Olive Garden's 23.3 buzz score puts it at the top of BrandIndex's casual dining buzz rankings for 2013's first half.
The others in the top five are Red Lobster (20.6); Applebee's (16.4); Golden Corral (11.1); and Chili's (10.9).
Casual chains seeing the largest gains in perception since first-half 2012 were Hooters (now at -2.0, versus -3.2 a year ago); El Torito (up to 0.2 from -0.7); Taco Cabana (up to 0.8 from 0.1); Home Town Buffet (up to 1.1 from 0.8); and Pei Wei Asian Diner (up to 1.2 from 0.9).
In a separate development, research firm Market Probe -- which ranks how well brands within various industries create and sustain customer-advocacy behavior -- has just announced that Red Lobster and Outback Steakhouse are tied in first place in this year's casual dining rankings.