The last ten years have completely changed the fast-food landscape. The adoption of mobile technology and social media has helped bring local restaurants and smaller chains into the spotlight while putting the traditional big players under a microscope. As a result, the major chains have changed their strategies to attract customers in an environment where their popularity has waned from previous years.
We built a data set to take a look at how the big chains were perceived over the past year and found that deeper beliefs about fast-food favored innovative and fresh plates and menus, tilting the playing field not in any major brand’s corner, but rather toward the thousands of independent and local eateries popping up each day.
Behind the Analysis
The Protagonist platform allowed us to surface, classify, and quantify narratives from thousands of pieces of content in social media, reviews, blogs and articles about fast-food in the past year. Computational linguistics, natural language processing (NLP), and narrative analytics allow us to capture and analyze content to understand the deeper beliefs, or narratives behind each story, far beyond something simplistic like number of mentions.
For example, if we strictly used social media monitoring, we’d see the top article garnered over 100,000 social shares covering the opening of “HipCity Veg”. The restaurant provided complimentary meals to the community only accepting donations to a local non-profit. Assessing this story without context shows the power of community giving in fostering brand recognition for a local eatery. From the perspective of major competitors, we can see HipCity Veg as a place to watch maybe to emulate, but not any deeper insight. However, that same story as a part of a narrative analytics data set about fast-food can help us understand and harness deeper nuanced consumer beliefs.
The Narrative Landscape
To understand the data empirically, each narrative is scored by its ‘narrative impact’ a measure of its volume and social engagement. For this landscape, Menu Pioneers was the highest impact narrative driving 23% of conversation and focused on any eatery from chains to the independent and local. The narrative could include anything from a food truck bringing new takes on different cultural foods, to remixes on classics like the Big Mac. This narrative captured the belief that new and innovative changes to plates and menus was exciting and attractive from both regular consumers and food critics.
Leveraging Technology was the second largest narrative in the landscape, driving 15% of conversation. It captured conversation about technological based efficiency gains in ordering and delivering from mobile to kiosks. This narrative underscored a deeper belief about food consumption: consumers are impatient, they want their meals quickly and as easy as possible. Restaurants and chains that used technology to make ordering and delivery more efficient were seen in a favorable light, such as McDonald’s partnership with Uber Eats or Taco Bell with Lyft.
More than a Meal, was the last of the top three narratives and drove 15% of conversation. It captured conversation about the positive impact local restaurants or major chains made for both their communities and their workers. In this narrative, if an eatery or chain was seen to “give back” such as in free meals, donations, scholarships, or equitable pay for employees, they were perceived positively as “do-gooders” by both critics and consumers.
Consumers and Critics favor Independent and Local
Throughout the three largest narratives we saw consumer and critic conversation on both local independent fast food restaurants, but also the national chains. Yet as a whole, the conversation tended to lean heavily toward the local. The narrative Independent and Local is in was the perfect example of this trend and was driven by a belief of ‘food exploration’. Content in this narrative espoused a desire to really explore food, often by type, and on city by city basis. It also captured an inherent belief about the value of local and independent restaurants versus corporate establishments, an ideological battle that spans farther than just food.
Local lean wasn’t unique to Independent and Local is in, with the narratives Best of the Best, The Reliable Go To, and The Healthy Choice all leaning largely against larger chains and emphasizing a focus on local eateries. Together these independent and local centric narratives capture over 37% of the narrative landscape, largely dominating conversation.
On top of this shift we saw two negative narratives that focused on perceived shortfalls of the larger corporate fast-food chains. Profiteers and Big Business captured the belief that major fast food chains only cared about their bottom line, ignoring the needs of local communities as well as their employees. The narrative Behind and Basic, took a subjective view of the menus of major chains, arguing that the offerings they had were subpar in quality and creativity when compared to local competitors. Together with the local focus in the overall narrative landscape, these findings reflect a broader public perception today that isn’t favorable for the major fast-food chains.
Major Brand Influence and Changes over Time
Despite a landscape that is seemingly stacked against them, the major fast-food chains still carry the power and weight of their brand recognition with them. News about a change in McDonald’s menu for example can often help spike the narrative impact of Menu Pioneers, whereas the same impact for a similar change at an independent eatery would be significantly more difficult. We assessed the temporal shifts of narrative impact focused on the three largest narratives, and found that content about McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King, and In-N-Out helped drive major shifts in the narrative landscape.
The temporal narrative landscape is the best indicator yet of the brand endurance and influence of the key fast-food chains. The narrative Menu Pioneers was boosted by new dish debuts across the major players including the McDonald’s “cheese curd”, the Burger King “Whopperito” and the Taco Bell “naked chalupa”. The McDonald’s of the future and the company’s debut on UberEats also helped drive Leveraging Technology. The highest impact spike in the landscape was in the narrative More than a Meal, it was heavily driven by coverage In-N-Out’s historical charitable giving and positive treatment of its employees.
The Fast-Food Chain Winners and Losers
To rate the performance of the major brands in the landscape we took a look at the at the associated brand presence of Taco Bell, McDonald’s Burger King, and Subway. Taco Bell comes out a clear winner scoring the most positively, with the brand having the highest overall association in the positive narratives Leveraging Technology (48%) and Menu Pioneers (37%), as well as a runner up for association with The Healthy Choice (25%). McDonald’s comes out as our loser with the most mixed brand signature, scoring the highest association with the highly negative narrative Behind and Basic (43%), while still being seen as the healthiest of the chains with the highest association in The Healthy Choice (38%) as well as the second highest association in Menu Pioneers (34%).
Burger King also comes out with the biggest diadvantage in this landscape due to a largely mixed performance with presence in the positive narratives Menu Pioneers (21%) and More than a Meal (23%), but an equally as high signature in the negative narrative Behind and Basic (20%). Subway was also mixed in brand performance, but comes out on top with a slightly positive lean with its highest signatures in The Healthy Choice (19%), More than a Meal (16%), and Behind and Basic (14%).
The Narrative Take Away
For local and independent eateries, there is no better time than now to challenge the fast-food titans. Public belief and perception falls largely in favor of the fresh, new, and always innovative local fast-food. Today American consumers and critics want unique takes on old and new dishes, they want to explore food especially where they live, and fully enjoy it putting local competitors who can take big risks at a great advantage.
Yet, on the other side of the coin the old guard of fast-food still play a powerful role, influencing critical conversation and beliefs about the use of technology and menu innovation. For large brands its increasingly important to monitor and influence their signature in favorable and un-favorable narratives amplifying their presence in the former and minimizing it in the latter. Neglecting to do so could leave the national chains facing increasing local competition, who already have a powerful advantage in today’s public perception about fast-food.