A new report shows that Taco Bell’s fight against a potential lawsuit claiming its beef is only 35 percent real beef might not just be hurting the brand’s reputation—it might be hurting the reputation of the entire Mexican quick-service segment.

YouGov BrandIndex, a consumer perception research firm that gauges consumer opinion daily by asking 5,000 adults what positive or negative things they’ve heard about brands, reported that the Mexican segment’s “buzz” score dipped from 5.6 on January 20 to 2.5 on February 23—the time frame that the lawsuit against Taco Bell was brought to light.

Buzz scores range from 100 to negative 100, and are compiled by subtracting negative feedback from positive. Zero is equal positive and negative feedback.

Ted Marzilli, senior vice president and global managing director of YouGov BrandIndex, says that because Taco Bell is the biggest player in the Mexican segment of quick service, it’s no surprise that its troubles would hurt the whole segment.

“People might start to [think], ‘If that’s the case with Taco Bell, then is anyone else in that sector doing any better with their meat?’” Marzilli says.

“Sometimes it can be a game of telephone. People know that the lawsuit was filed against Taco Bell, but as they start to relate the story to other people, Taco Bell may morph into Taco Bueno in some instances, and in other cases it may just be people saying that [Mexican] restaurants are really similar or seem to be at the same quality level, so if one of them is doing it, chances are they’re all doing it.”

The chicken segment of quick service also took a hit between January 20 and February 23, falling from a buzz score of 11 to 8.7. But Marzilli says there’s no clear reason as to why it happened.

“Both KFC and Church’s look like they have declining scores beginning some time around December,” he says. “I’m not seeing any obvious news events for why those two bands might be suffering.”

Marzilli says the buzz measured by YouGov BrandIndex is usually attributed to marketing and news stories about brands. If a brand or industry segment is experiencing low buzz scores but hasn’t had any bad news, it might be due to bad marketing, or lack thereof.

Marzilli expects Taco Bell—and, in turn, the Mexican segment—to return to normal buzz levels in two or three months, after its problems with the lawsuit have subsided—assuming nothing else comes to light that could hurt the brand.

A return to normal buzz would be good for the Mexican segment, too, Marzilli says, because it can have an impact on sales.

“The more you increase buzz and the longer you keep it elevated, the greater your likelihood of impacting sales in a positive way, and the reverse is true as well,” he says.

By Sam Oches

Consumer Trends, Marketing & Promotions, Menu Innovations, News, Taco Bell