Despite Setbacks, Subway No. 1 in Consumer Perception

    Industry News | January 19, 2016

    When it comes to consumer perception, the devil (and also deliverance) is in the details. Brands might be surprised to learn that, in general, customers will differentiate between problems inside the restaurant and those more loosely affiliated with the brand.

    YouGov BrandIndex tracks consumer perception for some 1,400 brands on a daily basis, and at the end of the year it averages the scores. In 2014, the five quick-service brands that ranked highest in terms of consumer perception were Subway, Panera Bread, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, and IHOP. For 2015, Panera and IHOP were moved from quick service into the casual-dining category, leaving the top five as Subway, Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A, Pizza Hut, and Sonic.

    Despite the scandal around former Subway spokesman Jared Fogle, the sandwich giant stayed at the top.

    “It’s important to remember that these rankings are based on full-year scores,” says YouGov BrandIndex CEO Ted Marzilli. The allegations around Fogle first broke in July, meaning consumers had nearly half a year to lower their opinion of the brand. “It shows that consumers can separate the actions of an individual who is associated with a brand from the brand itself,” Marzilli adds. He also says that just as Apple saw a boost in its perception following the death of Steve Jobs in 2011, Subway founder Fred Deluca’s passing might have conjured positive feelings of nostalgia. It might have also reminded them just how much Deluca changed the quick-service game.

    Despite this, Subway did get a slight demotion in terms of perception. Although it remained No. 1 in quick service, its perception dropped from No. 4 out of the total 1,400 brands to No. 18.

    Chipotle, which was the top “Buzz Improver” in 2014, did not place on the same list in 2015. Customers could disassociate a single man from the greater brand with Subway, but Chipotle’s repeated outbreaks tarnished consumer perception.

    “Consumers can usually forgive a brand for making a misstep—everybody does it—and particularly if you acknowledge you made a misstep, say that you’re going to take action to correct it, and then you follow through,” Marzilli says. “The challenge for Chipotle is that they’ve had repeated incidents. … Multiple incidents and very long legs for this news story are very challenging for brand.”

    Regional player Chick-fil-A, on the other hand, saw its star rise again. In 2014 it was the second most buzz-improved brand, and clinched the No. 1 spot that year. Increasing its score by 2.3 in 2015, it was also the only brand to see an increase of more than 0.9.

    Although Chick-fil-A has been adding popular new items like grilled chicken to its menu, Marzilli thinks the most crucial factor in its increased perception is unit count. As the brand expands beyond its Southeastern home base, more consumers are aware of it.

    “Every little bit helps. When we ask this question, we ask consumers to think pretty broadly about what they’re taking in from advertising, from the news, from word of mouth, from talking to friends and family,” Marzilli says. “All of those things can play into someone’s assessment.”

    By Nicole Duncan