Brand equity is no longer movement-proof. The shifting demographics of the restaurant industry are finally catching up with companies, shows Harris Poll’s 29th edition of its annual EquiTrend Study. The data, which is collected from more than 100,000 U.S. consumers and assesses over 4,000 brands (90 restaurants) across 450 categories, measures a restaurant’s health over time.
In the past, the study has shown that brand equity resists movement, but this year’s equity gains and declines among restaurant brands were significant. One of the main points: fast casual Mexican and pizza chains reported notably lower brand equity among baby boomers.
“Restaurants continue to adapt to the millennial lifestyle, and advancements in ordering methods such as Starbucks’ mobile app and Chick-fil-A’s ‘Mom Valet’ are likely influencing millennials’ higher brand equity scores,” says Joan Sinopoli, vice president of brand solutions at The Harris Poll, in a statement. “While the millennial dollar is powerful and attractive and many are clearly enjoying their rising disposable income baby boomers already have the cash to spend on meals out and need to be courted. The baby boomer versus millennial gap among pizza chains and Mexican restaurants may reflect boomers’ needs to eat healthier and the fact that they no longer have kid palates to please—and that signals opportunity for restaurants on the healthier end of the chain continuum to target them in their messaging and menu offerings.”
Meanwhile, coffee and quick-service restaurant brand equity jumps nearly 5 points with millennials compared to baby boomers. Casual dining and chicken chains are each up 4 points.
The EquiTrend Brand Equity Index is comprised of three factors: Familiarity, Quality, and Purchase Consideration. Brands ranked the highest in equity earned the study’s “Brand of the Year” distinction. In that, there were some surprises and shakeups.
There was an upset in the pizza category as Papa John’s grabbed the top spot for the first time since 2012, unseating Pizza Hut, which reigned atop the rankings for four straight years. A significant increase in Quality and Purchase Consideration lifted the brand. This is a sign that Papa John’s clean-label initiatives are paying off. The company recently announced its pilot of organic ingredients and a gluten-free crust.
Blaze Pizza, Pizza Hut, and Marco’s Pizza were next.
Starbucks knocked off three-time honoree Dunkin’ Donuts as the Coffee & Quick Service Restaurant Brand of the Year.
“While Familiarity, Quality, and Purchase Consideration scores are tight between Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme and Einstein Bros Bagels, Starbucks pulls ahead based on the strength of its Familiarity score,” the study says.
Research showed that 11 percent of millennials and 10 percent of Gen X consumers make a daily stop at Starbucks, beating averages of 5 and 1 percent, respectively.
“Given the ever-present morning rush lines at Starbucks, the fact that millennials and Gen X make daily Starbucks runs might not be entirely surprising, but it is telling,” Sinopoli says. “With its engaging rewards app and high-end Starbucks Reserve brand, Starbucks is proactively pursuing millennials and quite frankly, doing it better than most right now.”
Dunkin’ Donuts came in at No. 2, followed by Krispy Kreme and Einstein Bros Bagels.
There was also a dethroning in the burger category as Five Guys supplanted In-N-Out for the top spot.
This was the first time the fast casual chain earned Burger Restaurant Brand of the Year honors. In-N-Out was a two-time champion. Shake Shack, Wendy’s, Culver’s Whataburger, McDonald’s, Sonic, Smashburger, and Steak ‘n Shake followed in order.
Purchase Consideration pushed Five Guys to the win. McDonald’s held the highest Familiarity score across all brands.
“The burger brand category has become less fragmented, as regional brands expand and become available in more parts of the country,” Sinopoli says. “This is certainly the case with Five Guys, who has shed its ‘small regional player’ designation as it expands its footprint and marketing budget along with its fandom, which is a tremendous contributor to brand equity.”
Despite low scores in Familiarity, Moe’s Southwest Grill retained its title as Fast Casual Mexican Restaurant Brand of the Year for the second straight study. High Quality and Consideration scores were the culprits. Moe’s enjoyed a 5.8-point boost among millennials. “Moe’s has a unique tie to pop culture and knack for engaging customers that’s appealing to its core consumer,” Sinopoli says.
Baja Fresh Mexican Grill and Taco Bell were next in the rankings. Chipotle, the leader from 2013—2015 in the category, gained 4.8 points versus a year ago but still remains below category average as the brand continues to recover from issues related to its food-safety crisis in 2015.
Chick-fil-A is one brand that appears impervious to a changing consumer climate. The chicken chain was named Chicken Restaurant Brand of the Year for the fourth consecutive time. Millennials reported 9 equity points higher compared to baby boomers. Consumers with children also rewarded Chick-fil-A by scoring a 73 versus 66 for guests without children.
Zaxby’s, El Pollo Loco, and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen followed in order.
There was no suspense in the sandwich segment as Subway made it seven straight years as No. 1. “The brand has shown strong and stable equity over the last 13 years, and while it holds similar equity scores across generations, its reported frequency of visits favor younger generations,” the study says.
Panera Bread, Potbelly Sandwich Shop, and Corner Bakery Café rounded out the top four.
Ben & Jerry’s was named the inaugural Brand of the Year in the Ice Cream and FroYo Shop category. Its Quality and Purchase Consideration ratings cored in the top 10 across all award brands. Baskin-Robbins and Cold Stone followed.
For Casual Dining Brand of the Year, The Cheesecake Factory rode high scores in Quality and Purchase Consideration to a victory. Texas Roadhouse, Olive Garden, Outback, LongHorn, California Pizza Kitchen, IHOP, Carrabba’s, Maggiano’s, and Chili’s made up the rest of the top 10.
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