Perception Of QSRs Rose Above Casuals In '09
Overall consumer perceptions of both QSRs and casual dining chains improved between 2008 and 2009, but the QSR sector's greater gains left casuals with a very slim one-point index lead, according to tracking by the BrandIndex research service.
Meanwhile, on a brand basis, Subway and Wendy's maintained their top rankings among QSRs, and Olive Garden and Applebee's maintained their top rankings among casuals.
BrandIndex conducts 5,000 interviews each weekday from a 1.5-million online panel representative of the U.S. population. The margin of error is plus or minus 2%.
An index score can range from 100 to -100 and is compiled by subtracting negative feedback from positive. A zero score indicates equal positive and negative feedback. BrandIndex tracks six sub-indices -- quality, value, satisfaction, likelihood of recommending to friends, reputation and general impression -- and also composite or overall index scores based on performance on those six factors.
Comparing the two restaurant formats as a whole, between December '08 and December '09, QSRs gained two points overall, for an average composite index of 10.2 -- putting them nearly on par, perceptually, with casuals, which gained 0.6 points, for an average composite index of 11.3
On the value front, QSRs substantially increased their existing perception advantage, gaining 2.2 points, for an average value score of 12.1, while casuals' value score declined 0.5 points, for an average score of 8.7.
QSRs also increased their existing lead on the satisfaction factor, gaining 1.5 points for an average score of 15.3, as casuals' satisfaction rating declined 0.5 points, to 12.8.
Casuals maintained an advantage on the "I would recommend to friends" factor. However, even here, QSRs narrowed the gap. Casuals' average "recommend" score rose 0.4 points, to 13.8, while QSRs' rose 1.5 points, to 13.1.
BrandIndex SVP and global managing director Ted Marzilli notes that, while both casuals and QSRs are benefiting from heavy, value-oriented advertising and marketing, QSRs seem to be winning the value perception battle as the challenging economy drags on and consumers continue to economize.
"Many casuals have lowered price points to offer meals roughly in the $9 to $10 range, but it's obviously tough to compete with QSRs' still significantly lower prices, including expanded dollar menus" -- particularly in combination with upgraded, traffic-generating QSR offerings like McDonald's premium coffees, Marzilli points out.
Despite satisfaction with QSRs, consumers still show reluctance to recommend these chains to friends, perhaps not wanting to be perceived as "big fast-food fans," suggests Marzilli. However, this reluctance is clearly lessening somewhat, probably as a result of consumers at virtually all income levels taking growing satisfaction from snagging the best deals possible, he adds.
Few major shifts were seen within the top 10 individual chain rankings for either restaurant format between 2008 and 2009.
Looking at the composite indices for QSRs, Subway remained #1 (increasing its index by 2 points, to 48.2), and Wendy's remained #2 (up 3.8 points, to 37.7).
One notable change was Quiznos, which dropped from #3 to #5 (-2.1 points, to 18.5). Arby's moved up one rank, to #3 (up 1.1 point, to 20.9), and Burger King moved up one rank to #4 (up 1.1 points, to 18.9).
KFC, Taco Bell and McDonald's each moved up a rank. KFC logged the largest gain (4.3 points, to 17.1), to take the #6 position. Taco Bell gained 2.9 points (to 16.2) to take seventh place, and McDonald's gained 3.3 points (to 11.7) to take eighth place.
Marzilli says he believes that McDonald's perception ratings tend to lag other leaders' even as it outperforms them in sales because, as the dominant QSR chain, McDonald's "tends to be top-of-mind, or the poster child" when it comes to "less-than-positive" media coverage of the fast-food industry.
Chipotle gained 1.5 points (10.7), but moved down from #8 to #9. In-N-Out gained 0.9 points (8.7), moving up from #11 to #10 (and supplanting Schlotzsky's, which held the #10 position in '08, although Schlotzky's improved its overall score in '09).
Looking at the casual dining top 10, Olive Garden and Applebee's remained in first and second place, gaining 0.5 and 1.6 points for scores of 43.6 and 32.1, respectively.
Chili's moved up a notch, to #3 (up 1.3 points, to 28.5), bumping Cracker Barrel down one place to #4 (-0.1 points, to 27.7).
Red Lobster, TGI Friday's and Ruby Tuesday's each showed gains of 1 point or lower and maintained their respective fifth, sixth and seventh rankings (with scores of 27.5, 24.7 and 20.5, respectively).
Red Robin gained a rank, to #8 (up 1 point, to 14.7), bumping Romano's Macaroni Grill down one, to #9 (-0.2, to 14.1). Carrabba's Italian Grill held at #10 (-0.5, to 9.9).