Subway carved out a unique position in the QSR segment with the debut of Jared Fogle's weight loss campaign in early 2000.
More than a decade later, the sandwich chain continues to reap the benefits of launching a healthy marketing message before it was trendy. Subway ranked No. 1 overall in the 2011 YouGov's BrandIndex, which measures consumers' perceptions about a brand, whether derived through the news, social media, advertising or word of mouth.
It was the second year in a row the company ranked on top, earning a score of 41. Subway was the only restaurant chain in the top 10 of YouGov's list, which featured more than 1,100 total brands. (Check out YouGov BrandIndex's QSR research here).
Rounding out the top 5 QSR brands were Wendy's (26.8); Papa John's (24.8); Pizza Hut (23.3); and Chick-fil-A (20.9).
Scores range from +100 to -100 and are compiled by subtracting negative feedback from positive feedback.
Subway's positive attributes
Subway's advertising budget in 2010 amounted to about $400 million, compared to about $837 million for McDonald's.
"This means that advertising doesn't paint the whole story for a brand," said Ted Marzilli, senior vice president and global managing director of YouGov BrandIndex.
Subway generates significant positive buzz simply through word of mouth, he added.
"They benefit from being a healthy but fast option, and they're also aggressive on price points," Marzilli said. The $5 Footlong promotion gave the brand a big boost in the eyes of the consumer, as did other deals such as its Customer Appreciation Month in December that featured $2 subs.
Subway also continues to embrace its healthy positioning by offering tips for kids on how to eat better, featuring flatbread and egg-white options for breakfast, publishing blogs from dietitians on its website and testing gluten-free rolls in select markets.
"Subway is affordable enough that people can interact with the brand on a regular basis. It does a great job executing that value proposition and healthy perception," Marzilli said. "Subway has a lot of things going for it."
Carving out a unique spot in the QSR space
Subway isn't the only chain that has leveraged its distinctiveness. Wendy's landed at No. 2 for similar reasons, communicating a "higher quality" message boosted by the "You Know When It's Real" tagline launched in 2009.
"That better, higher quality positioning has penetrated the mind of the consumer, and I think Wendy's has built on to its positive perception over the years and continues to do so. And for the most part, consumers seem to be buying into it," Marzilli said.
The outlier on the list this year was Chick-fil-A, which spent a fraction of advertising dollars — $26 million in 2010 — compared to the bigger names. A strong fan base helps the brand, as does the recurring theme of differentiation.
"There is so much money being spent in on advertising in the QSR space, that it's hard to stand out and separate yourself from the crowd," Marzilli said. "The key is being the first to stake out the positioning and backing it up. Consumers will remember that and they'll stick with you, while others are trying to copy it. Chick-fil-A, I believe, did this with a different, healthier product."
However, even the strongest brands have setbacks. Chick-fil-A stirred up controversy earlier in 2011 when it was reported that the company donated large amounts of money to anti-gay marriage organizations. The chain's buzz dipped, and it took until the beginning of June to fully recover.
"Chick-fil-A isn't teflon, but it was able to recover and that is a tribute to the strength of the brand," Marzilli said.
Domino's was noticeably absent from the top 5 this year, after having a wildly successful 2010 following its recipe overhaul and resonating "Oh Yes We Did" marketing campaign.
"In many ways, I think Domino's was a victim of its own success, because 2010 was so strong. The company's focus this past year shifted to chicken, and it just didn't have the same viral effect. People didn't necessarily have a negative perception of the brand, but they weren't talking about it as much positively, either," Marzilli said.
The biggest buzz score changers from 2010 to 2011 were McDonald's (14.6 to 15.8); Hardee's (4.6 to 5.6); Jimmy John's (5.1 to 6.2); Culvers (4.8 to 5.8); and Nathan's Famous (3.2 to 4.1).
McDonald's likely received a boost from less negative news than the year prior, when childhood obesity was a front-page mainstay, as well as its healthier Happy Meal rollout and a marketing focus on the McCafe line.
Two brands not in the top 5 were Burger King, which has made numerous changes to its marketing strategy in the past year, and Taco Bell, which is still recovering from its beef lawsuit brought forth in the beginning of 2011.
Marzilli said Burger King received some momentum toward the end of the year, when the chain launched its new Crown Program meant to encourage family dining and philanthropy. Burger King was also an inaugural participant in the National Restaurant Association/Healthy Dining's Kids LiveWell initiative.
Taco Bell continues its long road of recovery from a now-dropped lawsuit questioning the content of its beef mixture.
"Taco Bell was definitely the brand most affected this year in the QSR space. It still has not recovered in the minds of consumers, which I think is unfair because people may not realize the suit was dropped. They were just reading headlines," Marzilli said.
Still, the chain has made up some ground. It dropped about 15 points when the lawsuit was filed, and is now about 3 points down from where it was before the incident.
Predictions and tips
Marzilli is hesitant to make buzz perception predictions for this year, but is interested in watching Wendy's and Burger King's continued progress, as well as Taco Bell's continued recovery.
McDonald's new advertising campaign focusing on the quality of its suppliers may also generate some positive buzz.
For all brands, he notes the importance of finding an unchartered niche.
"In an increasingly crowded marketplace, it's getting harder to find the right positioning and be credible," Marzilli said. "Brands need to really differentiate themselves; otherwise they're just competing on price and that's when consumer perception becomes a bit more sensitive."
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