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It was David Ogilvy who said, “Consumers don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.” And he was right about that. At least most of the time. And in a more complex marketplace it’s only gotten harder to measure what consumers really think today. Not what they say they think. Measuring that is easy. But measuring what they really think, and how they’re going to behave? That’s an entirely different kettle of fish.
We specialize in predictive metrics and in identifying what consumers really expect, and how they are going to engage with brands, and we’ve found that sometimes it’s the consumers who take the lead, and sometimes it’s the brands that change the paradigm, so it’s nice when customer values and brand values come together. You can pick any category value and turn it into a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” discussion, but you can always see when a mutual accord of consumer and brand values makes themselves felt in the real marketplace.
For example, for years expectations regarding healthier food were something that kind of ambled along on relatively parallel tracks for consumers and brands. Neither consumer nor brand completely followed through for a lot of reasons, but mostly because consumer expectations – or more precisely, not enough real consumer expectations – were there to make it a worthwhile investment for brands.  But when consumer expectations go unfulfilled for a long enough time, through either scrupulousness or serendipity, some brand finally recognizes the opportunity and steps in to fill that gap between what consumers really expect and what brands currently deliver. And when they do, the brand usually does real well. And when one brand does real well, others follow.
But like we said, it can be a chicken-and-egg debate, or, following our theme, more precisely a chicken-and-egg whites discussion as to whether the consumer or the brand drives category change. As a value, “healthier food” has been around for years. It finally delineated itself, as something not quite a “quest for fitness,” but close, and something that sidled very near to “nutrition,” and has now, ultimately, resolved itself as a desire for “free-from” foods. You know, free-from. Free-from too much salt, or fat, or free-from preservatives, or antibiotics. Free-from artificial stuff. Like that. And that value is showing up and making itself felt as regards consumer emotional engagement and brand selection.
When we look, for example, at a menu of restaurant brands in our January 2014 Customer Loyalty Engagement Index, we find that – just like every other category – consumers better engage, i.e., behave better towards brands they see better meeting their expectations, and those brands that can do that end up at the top of their respective category lists. Being No. 1 is nice, but in the case of engagement being No.1 shows up more tangibly in sales, market share, and profitability, something brands love serving up to their shareholders. Here’s this year’s top-5 brands consumers see as doing the best job delivering against their expectations for healthy, free-from food:
  1. Subway
  2. Chick-fil-A
  3. Panera
  4. Chipolte
  5. Dunkin’

What, in particular, are these brands doing to meet customer expectations? Glad you asked.
Subway announced it was eliminating azodicarbonide, something commercial bakers use to increase softness of dough. BTW, it’s also used in manufacturing yoga mats. Chick-fil-A announced it would no longer sell chickens raised on antibiotics. Panera marked a decade of using meat raised free-from antibiotics. Chipolte has instituted new standards having to do with nontherapeutic antibiotics and says it will look to source meats that have never been given antibiotics. And last year Dunkin’ announced they were developing a line of gluten-free offerings.
There’s a Yiddish saying that goes, “Health is a relationship between you and your body.” And these days, consumers are extending that relationship to restaurant brands that better meet their emotional engagement expectations for, well, everything that drives loyalty in their respective categories. But as regards, this one particular value, it’s worth noting that while free-from food is generally more expensive than food that is traditionally processed or sourced, it appears that both customers and brands are putting their money where their mouths are.

No matter who came first.

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