Archive for April, 2013

McDonald’s, Wendy’s Improve Health Perception

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Recent menu introductions helped some quick-service chains improve their brand perceptions among health-conscious consumers, according to a new YouGov BrandIndex report.

With the rollout of the McWrap at McDonald’s and the Flatbread Grilled Chicken at Wendy’s, the brands may have made positive inroads with quick-service customers who consider themselves to be in excellent health, although the chains would require long-term menu innovation and marketing to sustain the improvement, the report concluded.

For the report, BrandIndex studied its proprietary impression score — measuring how positive or negative survey respondents feel about any brand — for a handful of quick-service and fast-casual chains. The New York-based consumer perception research firm calculated its impression scores by interviewing 5,000 U.S. consumers each weekday to ask about hundreds of brands, “Do you have a positive or negative impression of this brand?”

This particular study broke out impression scores only among consumers who self-identified as being in “excellent” physical condition. Negative responses were subtracted from positive ones, and a moving average between negative 100 and positive 100 was calculated, with a zero rating denoting a completely neutral impression.

The study revealed that McDonald’s achieved its best result in that metric the week its McWrap debuted nationally. Meanwhile, Wendy’s impression scores rose after its March 26 rollout of Flatbread Grilled Chicken, briefly surpassing Panera Bread, its chief rival for second place in that metric, behind segment leader Subway.

At the end of the period spanning Jan. 1 to April 11, Subway’s impression score of 54 among quick-service consumers who identified themselves as in “excellent” health led all brands. Panera and Wendy’s finished just behind Subway, with 50.4 and 50.1, respectively. McDonald’s finished next, at 37.9, while Chipotle Mexican Grill and Taco Bell received impression scores of 27.3 and 23.4, respectively.

Subway, Panera and Wendy’s started from higher baselines of positive impressions with health-minded guests and scored consistently well because they have long marketed their food quality and freshness, said Ted Marzilli, senior vice president of BrandIndex. “Because Subway and Wendy’s have that history, they start at a higher base, and the things they do in this space have more credibility,” Marzilli said. “With McDonald’s there’s been a disconnect. When the brand moves in this direction, generally it’s a good move, but there are always going to be people who view it as a cynical move.”

A golden arch upward

McDonald’s began Jan. 1 with an impression score of 35.1 among health-minded consumers and hovered around 30 for most of January and February, with a low point of 23.7 on Feb. 28.

But as news spread in early to mid-March that healthful items like the Egg White Delight McMuffin and three varieties of McWraps would be introduced this spring at McDonald’s more than 14,000 domestic locations, its impression score began to climb steadily.

McDonald’s impression score reached a high of 44.2 on March 29, four days after the McWrap’s systemwide introduction, Marzilli noted.

“This change toward healthier eating — there isn’t this monolithic consumer deciding that everybody’s only eating healthfully — so maybe it’s moving in this direction over the next five years or 20 years, but you don’t know how quickly it’s going to happen,” he said. “There’s still a big market for burgers and fries. For McDonald’s, the challenge is to attract a more skeptical consumer going to Subway or Panera without alienating their base.”

Wendy’s, which has focused on product quality in its advertising for decades and was a pioneer in quick-service salads, typically has led other chains in the segment in impression score among health-minded consumers and competes more with Subway and fast-casual chains like Panera.

Wendy’s began with an impression score of 46.3 on Jan. 1, which trailed Panera’s value of 51.1. Wendy’s surpassed Panera’s score on Feb. 19 and reached a high of 53.3 on March 11. Panera pulled even in late March, right around Wendy’s introduction of Flatbread Grilled Chicken on March 26.

The 6,500-unit burger chain took its impression score from 47.4 the day of the launch to the low-50-point range the rest of the way, ending at 50.1 on April 11.

Wendy’s and McDonald’s respective improvements in impression scores since marketing began for the Flatbread Grilled Chicken and McWrap support the notion that healthfully pitched products can gain favor among health-conscious consumers, “but with a couple of important caveats,” Marzilli said.

“We’re looking at a short time period here,” he said. “Can those gains be sustained? Your brand impression is made up over the lifetime of customers’ experiences with you. Maybe the most recent news weighs more heavily in that perception, so doing more good things now is helpful.”

Health-minded menu innovation would need to be an ongoing part of the culinary process for both Wendy’s and McDonald’s because their new products must contend with decades of both brands’ heritage of burgers and fries, he added.

“The key is being able to walk the walk, but they’re moving in the right direction by making customers feel better in a couple different ways,” Marzilli said. “Customers could walk in and choose the more healthful option, or even if they don’t, they may just feel better about choosing a restaurant that has them to begin with. That might be the rationalization there. Or parents may just like having those options for their kids.”

Taco Bell Aims to Improve Nutrition by 2020

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Taco Bell is working on improving the nutritional quality of menu options, saying that the tastes and needs of customers are evolving.

Without offering specifics, the Irvine, Calif.-based quick-service chain announced general goals for developing more meal options that meet recommended nutritional guidelines based on the notion that most customers eat three meals a day — even though Taco Bell is notorious for suggesting a Fourth Meal daypart.

With a menu-labeling mandate on the near horizon, Taco Bell is not alone in any move to add more healthful offerings. However, the chain’s “commitment” to nutrition, announced Wednesday, remains somewhat vague.

The company set a goal of improving its nutrition profile by the year 2020 in two ways:

The chain will offer meal options that meet one-third of U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans Recommended Daily Intake values. The one-third is a reference to the notion that any meal at Taco Bell will be one of three consumed in a day.

In addition, the company intends for 20 percent of combination meal options to meet one-third of the recommended guidelines.

Nutrition guidelines vary, but for a man who should be aiming for about 2,000 calories per day, that would mean Taco Bell would be striving for less-than-660-calorie options. Under the guidelines, those items would also be designed with less than 25 grams of fat and about 760 milligrams of sodium.

Taco Bell noted that there is much on the current menu that already meets those guidelines. A Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco Supreme, for example, has 200 calories and 12 grams of fat. Two of those tacos, however, along with a 30-ounce Mountain Dew Baja Blast, bring the calorie count to 810, with 24 grams of fat, which would not likely be deemed a healthful choice by most dietitians.

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., said the guidelines were a good start.

“It’s great that Taco Bell is looking at the nutritional quality of its offerings, especially because eating out is a much bigger part of Americans’ diet that it was in the past,” she said. “Today people get about one third of their calories, on average, eating out.”

Wootan said she was pleased to hear the chain intended to have more than one or two healthy options, as some restaurant chains do. “I hope to see them add more fruit and vegetable options that are balanced and healthful, but also satisfying,” she said. “Most people are not going to be satisfied by two tacos and a soda.”

Taco Bell said it has already reduced sodium levels by about 20 percent in recent years, and those efforts are continuing. For example, the chain uses low-fat sour cream across the menu, and guests can order dishes “fresco style,” swapping sauce and cheese for the less-calorie-dense pico de gallo.

Over the past two years, Taco Bell has been shifting away from seeing “food as fuel” and attempting to improve perceptions of the brand’s food quality. Last year, for example, the launch of the new Cantina Bell menu with celebrity chef Lorena Garcia brought in new ingredients like whole black beans, fresh cilantro and pico de gallo, which are being worked elsewhere into the menu. The three versions of the Cantina Bowl, featuring chicken, steak or veggies, for example, are all 580 calories or slightly less.

Greg Creed, the chain’s chief executive, said the Cantina Bell menu has been bringing women back to the brand, whose target audience is young men, as well as boosting food quality scores.

“It has fundamentally changed people’s perceptions,” he said.