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Survey: Buzz turns negative for QSR chains

Americans may be dealing with one of the hottest summers in recent memory, but they’ve cooled in their perceptions of the nation’s three largest burger chains, according to new data from market research agency YouGov and its measure of public perception, BrandIndex.

Quick-service restaurant chains, especially the largest brands like McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s, have recently been accused by numerous consumer or activist groups of offering unhealthful food and undertaking unscrupulous advertising. From shareholder requests to end marketing surrounding Ronald McDonald, to questions about protein sourcing and calorie content, to marketing to children with toys, fast food is under pressure, and consumers are taking note.

In a survey released Monday, New York-based YouGov found that more survey respondents than average have heard something negative about McDonald’s, Burger King or Wendy’s, causing the chains’ respective BrandIndex “buzz” scores to fall from their recent averages.

“QSR has had a really good run the past two years, and I’d expect this is just another hiccup,” Ted Marzilli, senior vice president and general manager of BrandIndex, said. “I don’t mean to downplay the threat, but in the short term it’s more that people are hearing about the potential for increased regulation than the fact that it’ll actually happen. People are hearing about, and it’s showing up in buzz numbers.”

BrandIndex surveys 5,000 consumers each weekday and calculates a brand’s buzz score by asking, “If you’ve heard anything about this brand in the past two weeks, was it positive or negative?” The firm then subtracts negative responses from positive ones.

Each of the top three burger brands’ buzz scores fell this month from their averages of the past 12 months.

McDonald’s average buzz score for July, which tallied results July 1-20, totaled 12.4, compared with an average score of 16.7 from July 2009 through June 2010. Wendy’s average buzz score fell four points to 24.5 for July of this year, from a prior 12-month average of 28.5. Burger King’s falloff was less severe, dropping to 17.7 in July from an average score of 19.4 in the prior 12 months.

Because the brands’ buzz scores are trending down simultaneously, BrandIndex believes current challenges — from the White House’s “Let’s Move” campaign to media coverage of calorie content or consumer concerns — pose threats to the segment as a whole rather than any specific chain.

Marzilli said first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” anti-childhood-obesity campaign is one high-profile move that could have painted quick service in a negative light most recently.

“It’s not directly combative with QSR, but it goes around the edges, being concerned with healthy foods and hinting at the idea that there should be legislation to reduce the amount of advertising toward kids,” Marzilli said. “That has to be scary for some operators. The first lady and the president have a big bully pulpit, and ending childhood obesity is a cause that most people agree with at a conceptual level.”

Some groups, however, take this concern further, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has threatened to sue McDonald’s in order to pressure the chain to stop including toys with its Happy Meals. While the whole segment gets criticized in such activist campaigns, McDonald’s tends to receive the lion’s share because it’s the largest restaurant company, Marzilli said.

However, he added, McDonald’s and its peers have a core quick-service strategy at their disposal that can rebuild consumer perceptions and buzz scores: the steady development of new products and the resulting advertising.

McDonald’s Real Fruit Smoothies, Burger King’s Fire-Grilled Ribs and Wendy’s four new varieties of Garden Sensations salads all have the ability to drive positive responses with consumers, because the product news can take attention away from negative stories or sentiments about those brands.

“QSR over the last year and a half has done a great job of advertising value and launching some products that altered perceptions of quality,” Marzilli said. “I don’t think Michelle Obama will be in the news every day over the next 10 weeks, whereas those chains will be all over the airwaves. In terms of getting in consumers’ minds, there’s a built-in advantage in that they’re always advertising.”

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].

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