As dependency rose, fast food industry solidified brand intimacy

by | Jul 20, 2020 | Covid-19, Public Relations

As social distancing became part of the “new normal,” drive-thru windows at fast food eateries suddenly began to look like luxury dispensaries to many consumers. With this essential function, the industry was able to solidify its standing in the latest brand intimacy rankings from MBLM.

The fast food industry ranked sixth out of the 15 industries studied in Brand Intimacy 2020 Study, the largest study of brands based on emotions. MBLM (pronounced Emblem), the agency using emotional science to build more intimate brands during these unprecedented times, is also analyzing how consumer sentiment about the industry has been affected by the pandemic.

The study, now in its 10th year, revealed that Starbucks ranked #1 in the fast food industry followed by Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s. The remaining brands in the top 10 for the industry were: Dunkin’, Subway, Wendy’s, KFC, Taco Bell, Domino’s and Pizza Hut. Additionally, top intimate brands in the U.S. continued to significantly outperform the top brands in the Fortune 500 and S&P indices in both revenue and profit over the past 10 years, according to the study.

U.S. Top 10 Most Intimate Fast Food Brands, According to MBLM’s Brand Intimacy 2020 Study

MBLM also examined how the industry has been impacted the COVID-19 pandemic

For example, Pizza Hut’s largest franchisee NPC International, Inc. filed for bankruptcy due to shutdowns, which added to the competitive stress the brand had been facing. On the other hand, Domino’s has seen comparable-store sales increase by over 20 percent in April and May and its stock was up 26 percent for 2020 as of July. The fast food industry is also giving back during the pandemic. For example, Chick-fil-A created a $10.8 million community relief effort in April, through which it provided funds to franchisees to distribute to local communities in need. Starbucks launched its Starbucks Global Partner Emergency Relief Program in April to help its employees impacted by the pandemic.

“The fast food industry has performed fairly consistently in our study over the past few years, and has built emotional connections with customers,” said Mario Natarelli, managing partner of MBLM, in a news release. “As with virtually all industries, the pandemic has greatly impacted fast food. Some of the top brands have garnered largely positive and supportive responses from consumers, while others have faced criticism and scrutiny. Understanding how and why consumers express their connections during COVID is valuable for all brands in the industry to examine. Now more than ever, positive emotions can drive performance.”

Additional noteworthy fast food industry findings in the U.S. include:

  • The U.S. fast food industry had an average Brand Intimacy Quotient of 32.1, above the cross-industry average of 31
  • Starbucks was the top brand in the industry, and both millennials and users over 35 years old ranked Starbucks as their favorite intimate brand
  • Starbucks led among men, whereas Chick-fil-A was the top intimate brand among women
  • Chick-fil-A also led among users with incomes under $100,000, whereas users with an income over $100,000 preferred KFC
  • Indulgence, associated with moments of pampering and gratification, was the most prominent archetype in the category, and Starbucks was the top-performing fast food brand for indulgence

MBLM also further analyzed the industry in an article, “Fast Food & COVID-19. How consumers are talking about their favorite fast food brands during the pandemic.” The piece reviews the industry’s performance in the study and also the impact of the pandemic. Additionally, MBLM augmented its Brand Intimacy research with social listening research it captured during the week of June 15th for the top five ranking fast food brands.

While the brands spoke in generally similar terms about their responses to COVID-19, consumers spoke differently about each brand on social media

Starbucks’ users demonstrated a lot of emotion for the brand; Chick-fil-A’s users spoke about service and reliability with a few expressing disappointment about the brand adapting to COVID-19 but overall the brand was strongly linked to being efficient; McDonald’s was not seen as positively as it was viewed as a big corporation caring about profits and not protecting employees; Dunkin’ had people talking about the brand actively hiring, their COVID-19 routines and devotion to Dunkin’ and appreciation of local franchises; and Subway had mixed consumer mentions—with people associating it with financial trouble but also highlighting the brand’s donations to medial workers.

Fast food has seen varied results during the pandemic

MBLM questions what will happen with the industry as states reopen, close and reopen in varying degrees. The agency concludes it seems likely consumers will remember and continue to deepen their emotional attachments with the brands in this space as they continue to evolve their offerings and provide the indulgence many crave.

The reportcontains the most comprehensive rankings of brands based on emotion, analyzing the responses of 6,200 consumers and 56,000 brand evaluations across 15 industries in the U.S., Mexico and UAE. MBLM’s reports and rankings tool showcase the performance of almost 400 brands, revealing the characteristics and intensity of the consumer bonds.

Brand Intimacy is defined as the emotional science that measures the bonds we form with the brands we use and love, and is more important than ever as brands need to modify their roles. To view the fast food industry findings, click here. To download the full Brand Intimacy 2020 Study, click here.

During 2019, MBLM with Praxis Research Partners conducted an online quantitative survey among 6,200 consumers in the U.S. (3,000), Mexico (2,000), and the United Arab Emirates (1,200). Participants were respondents who were screened for age (18 to 64 years of age) and annual household income ($35,000 or more) in the U.S. and socioeconomic levels in Mexico and the UAE (A, B and C socioeconomic levels).

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter