The importance of brand trust

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Until recently, consumers considered Chipotle one of the most trusted limited-service restaurant brands. After its food safety incidents, Chipotle now scores in the bottom six for brand trust. Source: Technomic, Consumer Brand Metrics

Despite explaining its new food safety procedures and launching promotions like free burritos and a loyalty program, Chipotle has yet to win back the trust of consumers. Since the fast-casual chain’s food safety issues last winter, Chipotle has reported three straight quarters of same-store sales declines. Chipotle’s drop in sales has mirrored its brand trust performance: According to Technomic’s Consumer Brand Metrics, which tracks consumer ratings for nearly 90 limited-service restaurant chains, Chipotle ranked as one of the top three trusted LSR brands in the first quarter of 2015, prior to its food safety issues. But a year later, Chipotle had fallen to the bottom three. For this year’s second quarter, the chain has climbed a few spots, but it still has a long way to go before it gets back toward the top of the list for brand trust.

Perhaps patrons are having such a difficult time forgiving Chipotle because they held the chain in such high prestige. Chipotle had earned the trust of consumers by promising them “food with integrity” like naturally raised proteins, hormone-free dairy products and ingredients sourced from local farms. Although Chipotle’s burritos could contain upward of 1,000 calories, its transparency and commitment to responsible sourcing practices earned Chipotle a reputation as a healthful restaurant serving better-for-you foods. It’s one of the pioneers of the fast-casual movement, which was built on the principle of elevating the fast-food experience.

Like Chipotle, the five most trusted brands—In-N-Out, Chick-fil-A, Firehouse Subs, Culver’s and Raising Cane’s—all highlight quality ingredients, from all-beef burgers to hand-battered chicken tenders. But none of these brands have gone so far as Chipotle in spotlighting ingredients and sourcing methods. None have made highly publicized film shorts like Chipotle’s The Scarecrow, positioning the brand as an alternative to processed foods, or have hosted events like Chipotle’s Cultivate Festival, a series of annual fests focusing on sustainable food practices.

The top five brands have all built up trust through practices of transparency, whether that’s telling customers the source of their ingredients or discussing the result of customer donations. But our top five brands are known for other attributes beyond transparency. They’re not defined by their sourcing and ingredients—it’s a part of their story, but not the whole story.

Many of these concepts share a devotion to family-friendliness and a welcoming atmosphere. Some are even family-owned. Here’s a closer look at why these five brands are the most trusted among consumers.

1. In-N-Out

The philosophy of “don’t fix what isn’t broken” has helped In-N-Out become the limited-service brand that consumers trust most. For decades, patrons have known what to expect from In-N-Out: a simple menu of made-to-order burgers, fries and milkshakes, with friendly service and clean settings. The chain also earns points for treating its employees well, starting hourly workers at $11 an hour with benefits like paid vacation and a 401k plan—and promoting Christianity, with Bible citations printed in small lettering on select packaging. 

2. Chick-fil-A

Chick-fil-A also garners trust among Christian consumers for its faith-based values, such as keeping restaurants closed on Sundays so employees can attend worship and spend time with family. But beyond religion, the chain also has made strides on its menu initiatives. Lately, the concept has been making a bigger push toward healthful offerings. Chick-fil-A replaced its signature coleslaw with a Superfood Side salad of kale and Broccolini, added organic apple juice as a kids beverage option and pledged a switch to cage-free eggs. The chain also recently released its first new breakfast item in six years, the Egg White Grill breakfast sandwich, which it says is one of the first breakfast sandwiches from a fast-food chain to feature grilled chicken. The 300-calorie sandwich also includes egg whites and a multigrain English muffin.

3. Firehouse Subs

Firehouse has been climbing in brand trust rankings, jumping 49 spots from the beginning of 2015 into its current top-three ranking. That rise corresponds with Firehouse ramping up advertising to tell customers its brand story. The fast-casual chain debuted its first national TV ad in early 2015, which featured the brand’s founders—former firefighters Robin and Chris Sorensen—discussing Firehouse’s commitment to helping first responders, and subsequent ads have followed a similar theme. Each unit features a bucket at the register for customers to donate their spare change to local first responders, and patrons are also asked if they want to round up their Firehouse purchase to the nearest dollar to donate the remainder. Perhaps most important to maintaining brand trust is that Firehouse continuously updates customers on where their donations go, posting pictures on its social media pages of firefighters and emergency personnel receiving gifts like new equipment.

4. Culver’s

Culver’s is another chain that’s earned brand trust through advertising. While initial ads focused on the craveability and indulgence of Culver’s signature ButterBurgers, brand campaigns from the last year and a half tell the story behind Culver’s foods. An April 2015 television ad featured Culver’s co-founder highlighting the never-frozen, Midwest-raised beef. Other ads have spotlighted its frozen custard made in small batches throughout the day as well as the hand-battered, wild-caught Atlantic cod that goes into Culver’s fish sandwiches. A dedication to hospitality has also helped Culver’s earn trust from consumers. Employees deliver food to tables after consumers order at the counter, an uncommon practice at fast-food restaurants.

5. Raising Cane’s

Like In-N-Out, Raising Cane’s is ranked as a trustworthy brand because customers know what to expect. The fast-casual chain offers a simple menu of combo meals featuring its signature item—hand-battered, never-frozen chicken tenders that are made to order. The focus on chicken has made it a hit with families as well as among other consumers seeking an upgrade on a classic menu item. The menu’s been the same since day one, and Raising Cane’s has said it will “not clutter [its] menu with new products” that don’t fit its core positioning.

What operators should take away from these brand trust rankings is that brand image has strong implications for brand performance. The top five performers for brand trust are all private companies and don’t release sales information, but according to Technomic estimates, all five brands experienced increases in year-over-year sales for 2015, with some—Culver’s, Raising Cane’s and Firehouse—seeing double-digit increases. For Chipotle, regaining consumer trust is essential to improving sales. And for the top five brands, maintaining brand trust by emphasizing quality foods and involvement with the local community is key to continued growth.

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