A recent survey from research company AYTM finds that attitudes to health are a vital factor in driving preferences in the quick-service restaurant market, even if behavior suggests otherwise. Additionally the study provides comprehensive customer profiles of eight fast food restaurants in the U.S. which were selected by respondents as their favorites: McDonalds, Subway, Taco Bell, Burger King, Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A, KFC, and Arby’s.

The survey found that although Subway, commonly thought of as one of the healthier fast food outlets, was cited as the favorite quick serve of those provided, McDonalds had a greater frequency of weekly visits. Whereas Burger King, which was stated as favorite by just 8 percent of those surveyed, ahead only of KFC (6 percent) and Arby’s (4 percent), had the fourth highest frequency of weekly visits. Overall the top three chains cited as favorites with consumers were Subway (19 percent), McDonalds (16 percent), and Chick-fil-A (12 percent).

The preference for the healthy option manifested itself in the favored promotional materials of the quick-service chains. The survey researched responses to advertising. It did this by removing the quick-service brand from the material in order to identify uninfluenced preferences. This revealed that even without the branding, Subway’s “less than 6 grams of fat” promotion was the most preferred, with 37 percent of respondents ranking the unbranded advert in the top two of the eight adverts shown. While research on preferred beverages showed the healthier option, water, also ranked higher than the sugar filled carbonated alternatives.

Freshness and service were seen as the two major drivers for consumers when asked how they would describe the perfect fast-food dining experience, suggesting along with the other evidence that healthy options are a key driver for consumer preference in the quick-service market.

However, with consumer behavior not quite matching up with this healthy aspect, what is driving purchase?

The survey found that for McDonalds, Burger King, and Taco Bell, the three chains that index better over frequency of visits versus consumer favorites; price and convenience were two highly scored attributes common to all three. However Subway only scored well on food healthiness, and had a lower frequency of visits despite having more locations than any other quick-service chain. Whereas Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A scored well on food quality and cleanliness; suggesting that although the healthiness and clean-living can drive preference conceptually, convenience, and, more importantly, cost are more likely to drive actual purchase.

AYTM’s unique sample profiling allowed the company to look at each quick-service chain and build personas of the consumers that cited the chain as their favorite. This created incredibly detailed profiles of consumers, which are invaluable for quick-service marketers.

Those that favored Subway tend to be cultured, health minded, easygoing individuals. They watch PBS and CNN, listen to classical music and take an active interest in business and finance and health and fitness publications. They recycle, are interested in their health, and do not consider themselves bossy or possessive.

Alternatively those that favored McDonalds consider themselves to be open and optimistic. They are digital-savvy urbanites, use online banking and index highly for mobile and tablet use. They tend towards known brands, but are much more price and value conscious; those that favor McDonalds are also likely to shop at Walmart and Costco. Contrary to Subway’s consumer profile they prefer soda and soft drinks over water and are great consumers of candy products.

The third most favored quick-service chain was Chick-fil-A whose consumers are fit and stylish Christian women who prioritize entertainment, value, convenience, and connecting with those around them. Like the profiled McDonalds consumer they are optimistic and tech savvy, but are far more health conscious and more likely to be a runner and vitamin consumer.

The AYTM quick-service survey shows that although consumer’s preferences align with wider health trends, purchasing behavior indicates that price still rules. But armed with the rich profiles of quick-service consumers, marketers have invaluable data when planning marketing and advertising spend. 

Consumer Trends, Health & Wellness, News