Study Finds Consumer Perception Rises at Taco Bell While McDonald's Slides

Buzz Builds for Yum Chain -- Could it be the Breakfast Effect?

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It's not just Ronald McDonalds who like Taco Bell's new breakfast.

Consumer perception of Taco Bell has gone up around the chain's breakfast launch, according to consumer research group YouGov's Brand Index. The survey, which calls upon 4,500 consumers each weekday, said that both its scores for buzz (determined by asking consumers, "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?") and impressions (derived by asking "Do you have a general positive or negative feeling about the brand?") have gone up for Taco Bell since early February while McDonald's have gone down in the same period.

The data, encompassing the time frame from Feb. 1 to April 4, don't show why perception and buzz has gone up for Taco Bell while McDonald's has gone down. YouGov Brand Index's CEO Ted Marzilli said that YouGov looks at news surrounding the dates of the scores, and noted that Taco Bell's buzz score has gone up significantly since mid-March, (the chain confirmed in late February that it would launch breakfast March 27). But while the data only runs throught he first nine days following Taco Bell's breakfast introduction, Mr. Marzilli said impressions so far appears to be strong.

"With Taco Bell, the launch of breakfast seems to be having a positive influence," said Mr. Marzilli. But it's campaign tweaking McDonald's could also be a thorn in McDonald's side. "It's also possible that Taco Bell's breakfast launch, which is very much calling out McDonald's, is having a negative impact on McDonald's scores," he said. "We can't say that for certain, but when we see comparison ads, from our perspective, it's likely to be a contributing factor to McDonald's scores continuing to go down."

Taco Bell's massive breakfast campaign includes TV spots in which a host of real people named Ronald McDonald proclaim their love for Taco Bell's breakfast. No direct mention was made of the Golden Arches, but the next spot, which broke this week, directly calls out McDonald's and its Egg McMuffin, casting them both as hopelessly outdated. Taco Bell framed its breakfast in the most recent spot as the "next generation" of breakfast, according to Chief Marketing Officer Chris Brandt.

McDonald's, which had been working to fight sluggish sales, is in the midst of a two-week promotion offering free small coffees during breakfast, a move it announced a day after Taco Bell launched breakfast. And while McDonald's hasn't launched any TV campaigns that call out Taco Bell, it did post a couple responses to Taco Bell's campaign on social media.

The buzz chart for McDonald's and Taco Bell looks like a fork in the road beginning in mid-March: going up is Taco Bell, moving from 11 to the present 15. Going the other way is McDonald's, descending from 11 to 9.

McDonald's impression score slid from 27 on Feb. 1 down to 19 on April 4th, making a slight upturn to 20 the next day, "possibly in reaction to their Facebook response to Taco Bell of posting Ronald McDonald petting a Chihuahua," the YouGov reported noted, adding that "Taco Bell's impression score has remained steady during this time, currently sitting at 24."

He also also noted that purchase consideration has gone down a bit for McDonald's and up slightly for Taco Bell, though he said that McDonald's far outpaces Taco Bell as a chain that consumers consider to patronize. Fourteen months ago, 49% of consumers said they considered eating at McDonald's; that number has decreased to 45%. During that same time period Taco Bell went from 30% to 32%.

"These frequent industry snapshots capture a moment in time," said McDonald's in a statement commenting on the study. "We're always focused on listening to our customers, and serving them great tasting McDonald's food and beverages, providing an enjoyable restaurant experience."

Of course, as category leader, McDonald's is the most prone to criticism. "McDonald's tends to receive the brunt of any sort of action in that space, because they're the biggest in the category," said Mr. Marzilli. The chain has taken a lot of heat for low wages in fast food, which has been widely protested in the last year-plus. And the chain and some franchisees in March were slapped with employee lawsuits in California, Michigan and New York that charged it illegally underpaid employees by erasing hours from their timecards, among other things. Mr. Marzilli added that McDonald's move to the Dollar Menu & More last year, which gave the chain freedom to raise prices, didn't go over well with some consumers.

All respondents were age 18 and over, and have eaten fast-food at least once in the past six months. YouGov BrandIndex's buzz and impression scores range from 100 to -100 and are compiled by subtracting negative feedback from positive.

In YouGov's purchase consideration ranking for dining establishments for consumers surveyed in the last three months, Subway is No. 1, McDonald's is No 2. Wendy's is No. 3. Taco Bell is No. 10.

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