Subway Leads in Popularity Poll but Burgers Still Rule

Fast-food brand recognition appears to be a little like someone valiantly trying to stay on a diet -- the mind says one thing but the stomach says another.

So goes the state of the American fast-food eating public, which according to a Harris Interactive poll released this week, puts the Subway sandwich chain atop its list of so-called Quick Serve Restaurant (QSR) chains.

Subway was followed up by frozen-treat specialist Dairy Queen, according to Harris' online study of more than 25,000 U.S. adults in January. McDonald's (MCD) and Wendy's came in at No. 3 and No. 4, respectively.

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Subway appeared to use its ubiquity and advertising push for healthier eating to raise its mindshare among U.S. dining customers. The company surpassed McDonald's last year as the world's biggest restaurant chain by store count, according to the Wall Street Journal and, as of the end of last year, almost three-quarters of its nearly 34,000 global units were in the U.S.

Still, what people are saying and what people are eating appear to be two different things.

Americans polished off about 9 billion burgers last year -- an average of about one every two weeks for each person in the U.S., according to research firm NPD Group. While that number was down around 3% from 2009, it was still about nine times the number of cold-cut type sandwiches eaten in the U.S., leading NPD restaurant industry analyst Bonnie Riggs to believe that the Harris Poll is a far better measurement of marketing effectiveness than sales.

"We Love Our Burgers"

"Subway has a lot more points of distribution, but, in terms of volume? No," said Bonnie Riggs. "We love our burgers and eat a lot of burgers."

Indeed, McDonald's generated $24.1 billion in worldwide sales in 2010, up 5.8% from a year earlier, while Wendy's/Arby's Group's (WEN) 2010 revenue was $3.42 billion, down 4.6% from 2009. Subway parent, closely held Doctor's Associates Inc., doesn't disclose the chain's sales.

That said, a concerted marketing effort may do wonders for a company's exposure. Domino's Pizza (DPZ) and Yum! Brands' (YUM) KFC and Taco Bell had the biggest improvements in so-called "brand equity" between 2010 and 2011, according to the Harris Poll, which credited Domino's advertising strategy of pointing out its past quality shortcomings for the pizza chain's resurgence.

Forgiven for Past Shortcomings

"Domino's improvement shows the impact of transparency on consumer brand perception," said Jeni Lee Chapman, executive vice president of brand and communication consulting at Harris Interactive, in a statement. "Consumers are more forgiving with companies that take responsibility and are forthcoming about their efforts to improve."

Whether that translates into a sustained increase in sales for Domino's is another story, says NPD's Riggs. Domino's boosted 2010 sales by 12% to $1.57 billion.

"They threw a lot of advertising dollars" at the advertising campaign, Riggs said of Domino's. "Whether they can sustain that remains to be seen."

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