In today’s social media-fueled era of loyalty and digital communications, we talk a lot about what brand affinity means for restaurants. But what about brand personality? That’s another way quick-serves are scrapping for market share. Given the commoditization of products and battle for occasions, inside and outside the restaurant, establishing a specific brand personality is one path to chase guest loyalty—an ideal blurring by the generation.

While Baby Boomers are notoriously sticky consumers in the quick-service world, millennials pose a different quest altogether. They tend to dine out more by menu items than brands. Like, for instance, asking where the next gluten-free meal can be found. Or a restaurant that touts sustainability and fits their lifestyle image. And Gen Z? They often think of themselves as a brand. So rather than guests flocking to buzzy spots, restaurants are finding it necessary to crowd around Gen Zers who are trying to create their own trends. Case in point: Taco Bell. Rob Poetsch, senior director of public relations at Taco Bell, told QSR this of customers. “We always say this, but we don’t own our brand anymore. They own our brand.”

Think Taco Bell’s OpenTable partnership to let customers reserve a spot and try the Naked Egg Taco two weeks before launch during a “Bell & Breakfast” event. Or the famed Forever 21 apparel collection, which sold out within hours.

Having a well-defined brand personality draws customers in and can keep them coming back. If they relate and feel at home, they’ll likely show some form of loyalty. Do certain guests try Wendy’s because of its Twitter burns? Of course.

It’s the same premise Shake Shack nurtured from day one: Create a store design that speaks to a new generation of fast-food customers. An environment, product, and mission statement that aligns with their beliefs. In 2015, the brand told Campaign Live, “Everything about our physical settings exudes our brand. We tell stories about our local food purveyors on our menus, specials boards and the digital signs hanging on the wall. Your table at a Shack is probably made from wood recycled from old bowling alley lanes—and it says so right on the top of it.” Customers had no problem paying more because they felt they belonged. And that experience was where the value was. It wasn’t defined by price.

National marketing agency Zion & Zion dove deeper into the personality element. The company conducted a brand personality study of the country’s 26 largest quick-service restaurants (by systemwide sales with sub-1,000-unit chains excluded). It examined where the brands stood on five personality dimensions: sincerity, excitement, competence, sophistication, and ruggedness. More than 4,000 customers were surveyed. This hailed from behavioral psychologist Jennifer Aaker, Ph.D. and her scale development paper, “Dimensions of Brand Personality.”

“Interestingly, while both academics and marketing practitioners acknowledge the importance of brand personality, most academic work focuses on scale development and theoretical applications, and little work has been conducted in applying brand personality measurement to competitive and industry analysis,” the company said.

Zion & Zion used a seven-point scale for brand personality and asked guests to what extent each restaurant could be described as possessing the trait. For each respondent, who each rated a single restaurant, a score for personality dimension was calculated by averaging the value of the brand traits associated with that dimension.

Here were the results:

Chick-fil-a ranked highest in three of the five personal dimensions (sincerity, excitement, and competence). The brand was also second in sophistication. None of this is really surprising.

Inspire Brands’ Sonic Drive-In also performed well, grabbing third-place results in sincerity and excitement and fourth in competency. Dairy Queen finished second in sincerity, seventh in excitement, sixth in competency, and fourth in sophistication.

Something to keep in mind: Zion & Zion calculated 90 percent confidence intervals for each brand’s personality dimension. So when looking at the graphs, you can use the error bars to determine whether a chain’s ranking on a given personality dimension was within the margin of error of another restaurant’s score on the same dimension.

For example, in this below graph, it shows the level of Chick-fil-A’s sincerity perceived by respondents who were at least somewhat familiar with the brand (this was a question asked beforehand as well. Anybody who scored below a 5 on a 1–7 scale was left out).

The error bars can then be interpreted using the following: There is a 90 percent chance that the actual value of Chick-fil-A’s sincerity in the general population falls between 4.9 and 5.3.

Here are the rest of the charts:

What does this all mean?

Naturally, some of these traits are more desirable than others. As Zion & Zion points out, Starbucks and McDonald’s sitting on opposite ends of the “sophistication” chart is probably intentional to some extent. Or at least nothing to start shifting marketing spend over. It’s just a different consumer, targeted differently.

You could say the same about “ruggedness.” That’s a positioning choice. There’s no good or bad.

“A basic tenet of marketing is understanding your market and those who you want to attract and creating a congruent brand personality,” Zion & Zion said.

It might be a better practice, in this case, to think of what each brand wants to accomplish and whether or not it’s getting credit. Would Starbucks rather be perceived as “exciting” and “sophisticated” or “rugged?” An easy answer. The sincerity graph is one every chain would likely prefer rising in, though.

Papa John’s being at the bottom reflects the pizza chain’s current challenges. CEO Steve Ritchie has pointed to many examples (and sales reflect this) to show consumer sentiment has faltered since founder John Schnatter’s NFL comments began a string of PR flare-ups.

READ MORE: Can Shaq right the ship for Papa John’s?

If you go back to the third quarter of 2017, Papa John’s was tracking 1.1 percent positive with same-store sales. After the NFL comments came to light on an earnings call, the brand saw a sharp decline, Ritchie said earlier. That quarter ended up negative 3.9 percent and the arrow has pointed downward since.

  • Q4 2016: 3.8 percent
  • Q1 2017: 2 percent
  • Q2 2017: 1.4 percent
  • Q3 2017: 1 percent
  • Q4 2017: -3.9 percent
  • Q1 2018: -5.3 percent
  • Q2 2018: -6.1 percent
  • Q3 2018: –9.8 percent
  • Q4 2018: –8.1 percent
  • Q1 2019: –6.9 percent

Without getting too deep into how Papa John’s hopes to reroute this conversation (diversity training, new marketing, new leadership, value items, etc.) it’s interesting to see the brand at the bottom of a “sincerity” list. Would that have been the case three years ago? Probably not. Papa John’s didn’t achieve flat to positive sales for 14 straight years without customer appeal.

Customer Experience, Fast Food, Restaurant Operations, Story