YouGov BrandIndex has released its top five best-perceived limited-service brands of 2012. Returning to the list this year was Pizza Hut, at No. 4 with a score of 24.
Topping the list is Subway with a score of 40. The sandwich chain far outpaced No. 2 Wendy's, which had a score of 26.
The two brands stayed the course in 2012, as they were also No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in 2011.
Subway continues to leverage its healthy perception and value proposition. In December, the chain hosted a Customer Appreciation promotion offering some of its popular footlong sandwiches for $2. It also has a successful track record for engaging its fans via its social media channels.
A recent report from social media analytics firm Track Social showed that Subway had the most overall engagement compared to all brands in all industries. In the report, Track Social wrote that the brand does "an incredible job at getting their audience to respond to them." Examples include Subway's product-related posts, lifestyle images, direct promotional marketing and "sub humor" such as a photo of a baby dressed in a Subway sandwich costume. Additionally, Subway was lauded for its consistency, posting about relevant cultural and calendar events throughout the year.
At No. 2, Wendy's has made much headway reimaging its restaurants and rolling out new products with a perceived higher quality compared to its quick-service competitors; for example the mozzarella chicken supreme sandwich and the bacon portabella melt cheeseburger.
Last year, YouGov's Ted Marzilli, senior vice president and global managing director, said Wendy's is benefitting from this higher quality positioning, which has "penetrated the mind of the consumer. And for the most part, consumers seem to be buying into it."
Pizza Hut also remained stable year-over-year, with a No. 4 finish and a 24 score. The chain likely received a boost from its strong marketing efforts, as it was also recently named Ace Metrix's Brand of the Year in the QSR category for most effective TV advertising.
According to Ace Metrix spokesperson Michelle Robertson, Pizza Hut benefited this year from its focus on new products, as well as a little bit of star power.
"While (Green Bay Packers' quarterback) Aaron Rogers starred in the No. 1 ad, I would say Pizza Hut benefited — not unlike brands in other categories this year — from promoting innovation. The Big Dinner Box was clearly a crowd pleaser, but they also introduced three other new products via their top five scoring ads," she said.
Besides the Big Dinner Box, other ads promoted Pizza Hut's new sandwich concept, the P'Zolo, as well as its new garlic bread pizza and cheesy bites pizza.
New additions to the top 5
Making its debut in the top five was Dairy Queen, which finished third with 26 points. The brand's initiatives in 2012 included a Lunch Lovers promotion, a 100th anniversary celebration of the Oreo cookie and an extension of its "So good it's RiDQulous" tagline.
Dunkin' Donuts also ended up on the list, at No. 5 with a score of 24. The brand began a broader marketing campaign as it continued its expansion outside of core markets in the Northeast, exposing its offerings to new customers west of the Mississippi.
Dunkin' also got a lift from its new K-Cup offerings and has an active social media presence including a monthly, interactive Twitter promotion.
Falling out of the top 5
It wasn't the best year for Papa John's and Chick-fil-A's consumer perception. Both brands navigated through controversies that caused them to drop out of the top 5 list. Last year, Papa John's was third and Chick-fil-A was fifth.
Papa John's perception seemed to take a hit in August when CEO/founder John Schnatter said Obamacare would cost about 11 to 14 cents extra per pizza. He added "We're not supportive of Obamacare... If it is not repealed, we will find tactics to shallow out any costs and core strategies to pass that cost onto consumers in order to protect shareholders' best interests."
The monthly YouGov BrandIndex showed a drop in brand perception shortly thereafter, that was seemingly accelerated by a November class action lawsuit accusing the company of sending unsolicited text messages to customers.
After threats of boycotts, as well as waves of support showcasing the divisive aftermath, Schnatter later went on record to say the comments were miscommunicated. Earlier this month, Papa John's also rebuked the November YouGov scores that showed the initial drop in perception, stating the decline was due to the perception of what was being said about the brand; not perception of the brand itself.
Papa John's added, "The perception of the brand itself actually improved 4.8 points during the same period which was measured in the YouGov study that was the subject of their Nov. 30 website posting and press statements."
Chick-fil-A's spiral began in July when a report showed that the brand has continued to donate millions of dollars to organizations that are considered anti-gay. The fire was stoked shortly thereafter when president/COO Dan Cathy said the company was "guilty as charged" in supporting such organizations, adding that Chick-fil-A is "very much supportive of the biblical definition of the family unit."
A social media firestorm ensued, with promises of boycotts, efforts to block the company's expansion onto college campuses and counter-marketing "pro gay rights" campaigns from some smaller competitors. Supporters of the brand, however, facilitated a Chick-fil-A appreciation day, which yielded record sales, according to the company.
Despite the drop in YouGov's metrics, Chick-fil-A was recently named a 2012 consumer favorite by Market Force Information and by Technomic.
Biggest perception gains from 2012
In the QSR category, Taco Bell made the biggest perception gain in 2012, and the 8th biggest gain across industries.
Taco Bell's Doritos Locos Taco launch was the biggest product introduction in the brand's history. Its Cantina Bowl menu roll out also provided a lift, and helped Taco Bell gain market share against its fast casual competitors such as Chipotle. The company has also added a value menu and breakfast in some markets, and introduced a dessert menu during 2012.
Joining Taco Bell on the biggest gains list were:
Little Caesars: Michigan-based Little Caesars jumped back into the national marketing space after focusing on local markets for several years. The move was initiated after the chain named BFG 9000 as its new creative agency in the spring. It also embraced its traditional "Pizza Pizza" tagline. Its "significant" increase in ad spend seems to be paying off thus far.
Popeyes: Popeyes' sales growth has recently outpaced the entire QSR category by about 3 percent due to a disciplined approach to marketing, product launches, operations, expansion, leadership and more. Popeyes received lifts from its LTO offerings, such as Rip'n Chick'n, Dip'n Chick'n, Wicked Chicken, Crawfish Festival and Shrimp Tackle Box.
Jimmy John's: Jimmy John's continues to expand in new and existing markets and has benefited from its "freaky fast delivery" marketing campaign.
Wendy's: Not only is Wendy's No. 2 for top perception among QSR brands, it also continues to make perception gains among new consumers. The company's reintroduction of its "A Cut Above" strategy, as well as its focus on differentiation, appears to be resonating with consumers.
YouGov BrandIndex interviews 5,000 people each weekday from a representative U.S. population sample. YouGov crunched the daily 2012 data of the top 44 QSR dining and specialty brands to produce these particular sector charts.
YouGov BrandIndex's measurement scores range from 100 to -100 and are compiled by subtracting negative feedback from positive. A zero score means equal positive and negative feedback. All QSR brands were measured using their buzz score, which asks respondents: "If you've heard anything about the brand in the last two weeks, through advertising, news or word of mouth, was it positive or negative?"
Cover photo provided by analog photo fun.
Read more about trends and statistics.
Alicia Kelso has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.