Subway Earns Best 'Buzz' In 2011

Subway ended 2011 with the most positive consumer buzz compared with some of the country's biggest brands and advertisers, a new study found.

The sandwich chain claimed the top spot for the second year, according to consumer perception research firm YouGov BrandIndex. By earning BrandIndex's highest average "buzz score," Subway finished the year ahead of, the History Channel, Google and Cheerios. It far outpaced restaurant runners up, including Wendy's, Papa John's, Pizza Hut and Chick-fil-A.

"Subway has great scale and [holds a] unique positioning in its segment as a healthful fast-food option," said Ted Marzilli, senior vice president for New York-based BrandIndex.said. "We include news stories and word-of-mouth in our buzz scores, and the results imply that those are playing an important role for Subway. Ads help, but they're not the biggest sole factor."

BrandIndex calculates the buzz scores by surveying 5,000 adult consumers in the United States every day and asking, "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?" Negative responses are then subtracted from positive ones, and a moving average yields the buzz score on a scale from negative 100 to positive 100, with a score of zero denoting neutral buzz.

Subway's buzz score of 41 outpaced the restaurant industry's runners-up for the year: Wendy's at 26.8; Papa John's at 24.8; Pizza Hut at 23.3; and Chick-fil-A at 20.9.

While Subway is the largest restaurant chain in the United States, with 24,715 locations, it is not the heaviest advertiser, Marzilli noted. He cited research from Kantar Media that showed that Subway spent $400 million on advertising in 2010, significantly behind McDonald's, which spent $800 million on advertising in 2010.

Subway's high buzz score largely reflects its scale and value positioning.

"A brand that's either ubiquitous enough or affordable enough for people to interact with it on a regular basis is aided in this type of study," Marzilli said. "If you're paying $5 for a foot-long at Subway, you can be exposed to that brand much more frequently."

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A similar prominence of word-of-mouth pumped up Chick-fil-A's high buzz score, he said, as the Atlanta-based company spent only $26 million on advertising in 2010, according to Kantar Media.

"That's just nothing compared to what the other guys are spending [on advertising]," Marzilli said. "It tells you that Chick-fil-A has a devout audience, as well as a combination of unique positioning and really strong advocates of the brand driving word-of-mouth."

While Chick-fil-A does not have the scale or marketing budget of Subway or Wendy's, its consistent use of its "Eat Mor Chikn" cow mascots for more than a decade have helped as well, he added.

BrandIndex also tracked the biggest improvements in average annual buzz scores from 2010 to 2011. In that case, the largest advertiser, McDonald's, took the No. 1 spot, improving from a buzz score of 14.6 in 2010 to 15.8 in 2011. The next most-improved brands were Jimmy John's, from 5.1 to 6.2; Hardee's, from 4.6 to 5.6; Culver's from 4.8 to 5.8; and Nathan's Famous from 3.2 to 4.1.

While the top improvement was only 1.2 percentage points, Marzilli said, the increases were still statistically significant.

"The nature of 'buzz' the way we measure it is that it's somewhat fleeting," he said. "Brands may run a campaign for six weeks and then go dark for a month, so buzz scores get choppier."

The quick-service segment has seen greater improvements in prior years, he noted, as chains benefited from more traffic in the initial stages of the recession.

"QSR, coming out of the financial crisis in 2008, got some real momentum behind it because those brands were benefiting from all the trade-down" Marzilli said. "That gave them a big boost going into 2009 and 2010, so there's been a flat-lining of sorts."

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