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Taco Bell, Arby’s show big gains in buzz

Consumer perception also improves for Red Robin, Little Caesars in March, study finds

March typically is a good month for restaurants, when St. Patrick’s Day and the NCAA basketball tournament get customers out and about for food and drinks, but even brands that don’t typically get a bump from shamrocks and hoops had a memorable March for their consumer perceptions, according to new research from YouGov BrandIndex.

The New York-based research firm, which measures customer attitudes toward more than 1,100 companies by surveying 5,000 American consumers every weekday, found that four restaurant brands were among the 10 companies with the biggest gains in “buzz scores” in March. Taco Bell, Arby’s, Red Robin and Little Caesars all showed significant improvements from their February buzz scores, YouGov BrandIndex found.

Taco Bell’s score improved the most of any brand last month, rising from negative 6.1 to a positive 7.5 score, followed by Arby’s, whose 7.4-point improvement took the sandwich brand from 12.1 in February to 19.5 in March. Red Robin had the No. 4 score improvement, rising from 12.6 to 18.2, and Little Caesars’ buzz score increased from 8.2 in February to 12.9 in March.

Ted Marzilli, senior vice president of YouGov BrandIndex, said restaurants’ improvements in buzz scores, which represent general attitudes toward brands gleaned from consumer surveys are becoming more positive, are not surprising given that foodservice companies are heavy advertisers.

“It’s pretty obvious for Taco Bell and Arby’s,” Marzilli said, noting that Taco Bell has countered negative perceptions of its ground beef with the deployment of full-page newspaper ads, giveaways and employee-focused commercials in response to a consumer lawsuit filed earlier this year. Also, Arby’s is benefiting from its recently launched “Good Mood Food” advertising campaign.

Red Robin’s buzz improvements owe to the brand’s success promoting limited-time offers like its Prime Chophouse Burger, Marzilli said. As for Little Caesars, Marzilli had a harder time pinpointing what drove the pizza chain’s buzz scores, since it has been several months since it sponsored college football’s Little Caesars Pizza Bowl and no major advertising campaigns or product news have broken for the Detroit-based brand.

“In general, advertising and news stories are the primary reasons for movements in buzz scores,” Marzilli said, “and online branding and social media amplify those movements. That doesn’t mean the reverse isn’t possible. We may not be pulling up anything recent on the advertising front for them, but if it’s the No. 10 brand out of the more than 1,000 we track, then the movement’s real.”

With far less advertising than its big three pizza competitors and a modest social-media presence — slightly more than 56,000 Facebook “likes” and nearly 2,000 Twitter followers — Little Caesars likely is driving its positive word-of-mouth with local-store marketing and customer satisfaction. The chain did not return a phone call as of press time.

Far easier to discern, Marzilli said, is the impact Taco Bell’s advertising has had on its public image, which had yielded negative buzz scores to end February but closed March slightly positive.

“It’s a very big jump, but the brand’s buzz is still only slightly positive,” he said. “That means Taco Bell’s image hasn’t full recovered, but it is recovering.”

Arby’s, which parent company Wendy’s/Arby’s Group is looking to sell, also reaped benefits for its perceptions in March with a new ad campaign, in which a spokesperson named R.B. touts the chain’s sandwiches as “Good Mood Food.” That brand-focused advertising, rather than commercials for limited-time offers or deals, likely trades the immediate lift in sales for a longer-term boost to the chain’s image, Marzilli said.

“Ads focused on value or specific promos … typically are how brands in quick service tend to advertise, and those get the results CFOs like to see,” he said. “When you advertise at the brand level … it’s a braver way to advertise, because it’s certainly longer-term thinking and something you have to continually do. Numbers like these are a great sign for Arby’s, and it’s arguably what the brand needs to do. It’s had a rough couple years, and this may be the right strategy to attract a buyer with longer-term thinking.”

Red Robin’s national cable TV spots for the Prime Chophouse Burger likely are driving its perception gains, but the chain’s recently revamped loyalty program may have provided some positive news about the brand as well, and it could help sustain a lot of that buzz, Marzilli said.

“When people answer these questions, if they’ve received a loyalty card or a mailer about this type of program, they’d be likely to check that box for positive perception,” he said. “Absolutely, the loyalty program getting out there and top of mind could be behind the buzz numbers, but you want to see that follow through to its quality and recommend scores as well.”

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].

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