Consumers say they want healthy choices, but they don’t always make them

Here at AYTM we’re constantly probing our respondents to ensure the very best data quality through our panel — and build in-depth profiles which we use to power our unique profiling and visualization tools.

Recently we studied fast food restaurants — what the industry calls “Quick Service Restaurants” or QSR — to understand consumer preferences and behavior when eating out. We asked consumers about eight popular fast food restaurants in the U.S.: McDonald’s, Subway, Taco Bell, Burger King, Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A, KFC, and Arby’s.

We found that attitudes to health are a vital factor in defining their preferences, even if their behavior suggests otherwise.

Healthy choices are the highest ranked

With health a priority, Subway, commonly thought of as one of the healthier fast food outlets, topped the list as the favorite QSR (19%). Second in the list was McDonald’s (16%), followed by Chick-fil-A (12%) and Burger King (8%)

Our consumers also showed that health was a key factor in their ratings of promotional materials. Advertisements were shown without any brand affiliation, to determine uninfluenced preferences. Subway’s ‘less than 6g of fat’ promotion was the most preferred, with 37% of respondents ranking it in the top two of the eight adverts shown. Respondents also indicated they prefer healthier beverages, with water ranking higher than the sugar-filled carbonated alternatives.

Finally, respondents listed freshness as one of the top drivers of a perfect fast-food dining experience, which correlates nicely with their other perceptions that healthy options are important.

Elevation Healthiness
Subway is the clear winner on perceptions of healthiness, with McDonald’s bringing up the rear. The elevation in this chart is the dimension of healthiness, with a score shown for each chain.

But consumers aren’t necessarily making them

Despite compelling data regarding the value consumers place on healthy choices, their behavior isn’t matching up.

McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell were the most frequented restaurants on our list, despite scoring lower as consumer favorites and for healthiness. Price and convenience were their two highly scored attributes. Meanwhile, despite scoring higher on food healthiness than the top three visited restaurants, and despite having more locations than any other QSR chain, Subway comes in fourth place in visits. This suggests that although healthiness and clean-living can drive preference conceptually, it is convenience, and more importantly cost, that influence purchasing decisions.

Fig 2.  - Total Scores of McDonalds

McDonald’s ranks highest on convenience/location and prices, and lowest on healthiness. The elevation in this chart is the collection of scores by each dimension for McDonald’s.

AYTM also looked into each QSR chain and built customer segments from its deep respondent profiles, which are invaluable for QSR marketers.

Those that favored Subway tend to be cultured, health minded, easygoing individuals. They watch PBS and CNN, listen to classical music, and take an active interest in publications about business, finance, health, and fitness. They recycle, and do not consider themselves bossy or possessive.

Alternatively, those that favored McDonald’s consider themselves to be open and optimistic. They are digital-savvy urbanites who use online banking, as well as mobile and tablet devices. They tend towards known brands, but are much more price- and value-conscious; they’re also likely to shop at Walmart and Costco. Contrary to Subway’s consumer profile, they prefer soft drinks over water, and are great consumers of candy products.

The third most favored QSR chain was Chick-fil-A, whose consumers are fit and stylish Christian women who prioritize entertainment, value, convenience, and connecting with those around them. Like the profiled McDonald’s consumer, they are optimistic and tech-savvy, but are far more health conscious: they’re more likely to be runners and vitamin consumers.

An example of a customer persona built from AYTM's Personality Radar.
Chick-Fil-A persona based on data from AYTM’s Personality Radar

Our survey demonstrated that although consumer’s preferences align with wider health trends, price and convenience still influence behavior the most. But armed with the rich profiles of QSR consumers, our tools provide marketers invaluable data when planning marketing and advertising spend.

The complete results are on our platform.

Interested to see how our profiles and platform can help you understand your customers’ preferences and behaviors? Contact us today and we’ll be in touch quickly!