Burger Brands Lose Edge In QSR Perception Battle

by , Dec 5, 2013, 5:09 PM
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While there's no question that Americans are still hooked on burger chains, two separate sets of new data point to these stalwarts losing their edge to other QSR and fast-casual formats when it comes to consumer perceptions.

One piece of research, Empathica’s 2013 QSR Benchmark study, surveyed 10,000 U.S. consumers about the top 62 QSR brands, asking them to rank those they had visited in the past 30 days on factors including food, order accuracy, speed of service, staff, value, cleanliness, atmosphere and menu. 

Among the findings: On average, customers are more satisfied with their overall experience with QSR sandwich brands than they are with QSR burger brands, by a margin of 19%. (Empathica's definition of sandwich brands includes both QSRs like Subway and brands generally considered "fast casuals," like Panera Bread.)

In addition, consumers are 29% more satisfied with the speed of sandwich brands, compared to burger brands. And while just 27% report feeling "valued" when visiting sandwich chains, even fewer — 21% — feel valued when visiting burger chains.

Burger brands did tie with sandwich brands when customers were asked if they felt they received value for their money, but the not-so-good news is that just 37% of customers of both formats answered affirmatively on this point.

Looking specifically at sandwich brands, Empathica reports that guests are by and large satisfied overall, but that their customers rank them somewhat lower on "value" than other factors like food taste, preparation and order accuracy.

Food taste, portion size, food prepared right, right food temperature, order accuracy, service speed, atmosphere, staff attentiveness, menu variety, cleanliness, friendly staff, greetings from staff, and "felt valued," in that order, are the main drivers of satisfaction among sandwich brand customers. While customers express some concern about pricing, their value perceptions could also be improved if sandwich brands addressed experiential factors such as making helpful menu suggestions, the researchers report. 

In fact, customer service experience directly correlated with general customer satisfaction for sandwich brands: The top three sandwich brands ranked for overall staff attentiveness and friendliness also ranked highest in overall satisfaction: Firehouse Subs, Schlotzsky’s and Panera Bread. (See results summary for more specifics on sandwich brand findings and rankings.) 

For burger chains, the top drivers of satisfaction were food taste, right food temperature, food prepared right, staff attentiveness, "felt valued," order accuracy, portion size, restaurant atmosphere, friendly staff, cleanliness, service speed, greetings from staff, and menu variety, in that order.

On average, positive satisfaction levels for burger chain customers were 52% for order accuracy , 41% for food, 40% for staff, 35% for service speed, 38% for menu and 29% for restaurant atmosphere.

Overall, the study "demonstrates the importance of learning from customers’ expectations across restaurant categories," says Gary Edwards, chief customer officer at Empathica parent Mindshare Technologies. "QSR brands, no matter the specific type of food, are fighting for the same customers looking to enjoy a quick meal out. To conveniently find great product at a good price with a little unexpected flair makes the experience stand out — and that really drives consumer loyalty."

Burger Vs. Other QSRs: The Buzz on Value

Separate, recent data from YouGov BrandIndex specifically focused on measuring the value perceptions of fast-food customers indicate that, while burger chains still lead other QSR segments on this factor, their edge has been steadily eroding in recent months.

Burger brands' value-perception edge compared to pizza brands, in particular, is now "razor-thin," YouGov reports.

YouGov compared results on its BrandIndex Value score for all major burger, pizza, chicken and Mexican brands (some fast-casual brands as well as QSRs included) between early July and mid-November. Respondents were 18 and older and had eaten in a fast-food restaurant in the past three months. The Value score asks respondents: "Does [the QSR brand] give good value for what you pay?"

The Value score pattern for burger chains as a whole fluctuated up and down somewhat, but their average score declined from over 16 as of July 1 to between about 15 and 16 by mid November. (BrandIndex scores range from 100 to -100, and are compiled by subtracting negative feedback from positive. A zero score means equal positive and negative feedback.)

In contrast, pizza chains' average value score started out below 11 in July, but has risen more or less steadily since – reaching 15 to slightly over 15 by mid-November. That pushed them past both the Mexican and chicken segments, and puts them just shy of the burger chains' value perception.

YouGov reports that the contrast in performance can be attributed in no small part to the differing pricing /promotion strategies of leading burger and pizza brands over the past several months.

The researcher notes that "after years of marketing their meals as a great deal, the burger sector has been trying to wean consumers off dollar menus." Examples include McDonald's' November roll-out of its “Dollar Menu And More,” which features more items over $1 than before; Burger King’s addition of a $1.29 Whopper Jr.; and Wendy's' morphing its 99-cent menu into “Right Price Right Size,” with items priced up to $2.

In contrast, leading pizza brands have been "aggressively hawking bargain pie prices throughout the fall," points out YouGov.  Examples include Pizza Hut's "$10 Any Pizza Any Size Any Toppings" and Little Caesar’s new, $8 deep-dish and $5 "Hot ‘n’ Ready" pies.

The average Value score for the chicken segment (which includes Chick-fil-A, KFC, Boston Market and Church's) was about 15 as of July 1, and virtually the same as of mid November (although it fluctuated up and down in between).

The Mexican segment (which includes Taco Bell, Chipotle, Qdoba, Baja Fresh and others) saw a significant value perception dip throughout the summer, bounced back appreciably during September and early October, but has since been tapering off again, putting it behind the other three. 

YouGov notes that Taco Bell has been tinkering with a "$1 Cravings Menu" in a few cities, and that Chipotle told investors in November that, after two to three years of stable pricing, the chain will be raising prices sometime during 2014.

"Fast Food" photo from Shutterstock.

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