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Survey: Taco Bell rebounds from lawsuit

Chain charts slow but steady public image recovery since launching ads touting quality

Taco Bell is beginning to bounce back in the court of public opinion after a false advertising lawsuit targeting the quick-service chain’s beef damaged its brand image earlier this year, according to new research from YouGov BrandIndex.

The consumer lawsuit, which was filed in January, alleged that the 5,600-unit brand’s taco filling contained fillers and extenders and was falsely advertised as beef.

The brand consulting firm, which measures consumer perceptions of companies by surveying 5,000 people each weekday, found several brand-health metrics that had declined following the filing now are trending upwards as a result of Taco Bell’s marketing response.

The New York-based firm’s metrics range from negative 100 to positive 100 and are calculated by subtracting negative feedback from positive feedback.

The Irvine, Calif.-based chain’s “buzz,” “quality” and “recommend” scores fell to their lowest levels in early to mid-February, just as Taco Bell launched its response, which included national newspaper ads that read, “Thank you for suing us.”

The “buzz” score, which measures word-of-mouth by asking consumers whether they have heard anything positive or negative about the brand in the past two weeks, decreased the most, falling to negative 10.6 on Feb. 7.

The “quality” score, which subtracts the number of “low-quality” survey responses from “high-quality” responses, hit a low of negative 10.7 on Feb. 16.

The “recommend” score, tabulated by subtracting the number of consumers who would not recommend a brand to a friend from the number of consumers who would, decreased to a low of 1.3 on Feb. 8.

Before the suit was filed, Taco Bell’s buzz, quality, and recommend scores were 19.1, 4.8 and 19.6, respectively, on Jan. 3.

Since Taco Bell deployed its newspaper ads, an online video starring president Greg Creed, a crunchy-taco giveaway on Facebook, the “Talk” ad campaign on TV and an accompanying 88-cent Crunchwrap Supreme offer, the brand’s scores have been moving upward.

CHART: BrandIndex’s chart tracking consumer opinion on Taco Bell since the lawsuit

As of March 15, the buzz, quality and recommend scores had rebounded to 9.8, 2.0 and 13.2, respectively.

Ted Marzilli, senior vice president of BrandIndex, said that while the scores have not reached their pre-lawsuit levels yet, Taco Bell is “moving in the right direction.”

“It’s surprising to me that this is going on a little longer than I expected,” he said. “I thought this would be a four- to six-week issue, but this might have another two to four weeks to go. But the trend line is encouraging for Taco Bell.”

Marzilli said the chain’s commercials, in which actual Taco Bell employees and franchisees tout the brand’s ground beef recipe but do not specifically mention the lawsuit, conveyed a “real” message and connected with viewers on an emotional level. The spots ran on national TV from Feb. 28 to March 5.

Marzilli said showing the “Talk” commercials for a short period of time and returning to product-centric ads — most recently for Taco Bell’s Pacific Shrimp Taco — effectively “walked the tight rope” between addressing the problem and not calling too much attention to it. At the same time, it still leaves room to do another real-employee execution in the future.

“I can see why this is a good strategy; you don’t want to beat the issue to death,” Marzilli said. “If they revisit it, they may want to film new commercials using their employees again, in order to connect on that emotional level again. Using your own employees can be a good tactic, and they did it reasonably here, but if they go back they could talk about something else, like service or new products, or what they do in their communities.”

It is taking Taco Bell longer to regain its brand-health scores after the lawsuit than it took Domino’s Pizza to recover from the damage done to its reputation when two employees filmed themselves contaminating food and posted the video on YouTube in 2009. But Marzilli said the latter public-perception crisis was different because it focused on the quality of one Domino’s location, while the Taco Bell lawsuit alleges an unfavorable practice for the whole chain, not one isolated unit.

“The more broad-based accusation seems to be having on the aggregate a slightly longer duration,” Marzilli said.

Taco Bell is a division of Louisville, Ky.-based Yum! Brands Inc.


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Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].

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