Consumer expectations for brands, including those within the casual dining and beverage sectors, are at a 20-year high, fueled by mobile and socially-driven consumer empowerment and ongoing price promotions, reports customer loyalty research consultancy Brand Keys.

Brands have to keep pace with consumer expectations, which have gotten bigger and bigger over the years, comments Robert Passikoff, Brand Keys president. “The gap is growing between what brands can deliver and what consumers really want.”

Brand Keys surveys consumers, digging deep into specific categories to detail what drives their expectations. The brand whose drivers come closest to meeting (or even exceeding) those of the category ‘”Ideal” is always the one whose customers will demonstrate the highest levels of engagement and loyalty over the next 12 to 18 months, says Passikoff.

The drivers change based on the category. Brand Keys’ 18th annual 2014 Customer Loyalty Engagement Index (CLEI) shows within the casual dining/fast casual segment (lumped together because survey participants do) there are four main drivers:

  • The first and most important driver is that consumers want healthy, high-quality, tasty food.
  •  Consumers are looking for variety and value. They do not want to be promised value on one item, and get charged exorbitant prices on others. 
  • The third driver is friendly and efficient customer service.
  • The fourth and last driver is the perceived sensory atmosphere and corporate positioning. “This is a corporate reputation catchall,” says Passikoff. “It includes how ‘green’ the brand is perceived, do they participate in the local community, do they welcome children, etc.”

The leading casual dining chain—meaning that it tops other brands in terms of meeting customer expectations—is Olive Garden, followed by IHOP, Texas Roadhouse, TGI Friday’s, Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday, Chili’s, Red Lobster, Golden Corral, and Outback.

 “Brand Keys measures both emotional and rational expectations, because most decision-making is emotional, and consumers are not necessarily articulating their expectations,” says Passikoff.

Those emotional consumer expectations directly correlate with brand profitability and marketshare, says Passikoff. “If their rankings are high, the brands are meeting their customers’ expectations.”

The brands that meet consumer expectations have higher levels of engagement and loyalty than those that rely on the primacy of product, distribution, or a coupon, says Passikoff.

Being attentive to the engagement expectation gap presents brands with a real opportunity, he adds. “If you can do something that increases a brand’s engagement level, you’ll always see more positive consumer behavior in the marketplace. Always. Brands that are assessed as better meeting expectations held for the Ideal always have larger market shares and are always more profitable than those that can’t.”

For the 34 brands Brand Keys tracked in the beverage category, the strongest influences on consumer engagement—and hence decision-making—were related to expectations focused around “hand-crafted,” “Barista experience and expertise” and “connected to my whole family.”

Brands in the beverage category that best met expectations consumers held for the category-specific Ideal (100%) were:

  • Dunkin’ Donuts Coffee (96 percent)
  • Coors Light (95 percent)

  • Sam Adams Light (95 percent)

  • Coors (90 percent)

  • Sam Adams (90 percent)

  • Coca-Cola (87 percent)
Diet Coke (89 percent)


By Joann Whitcher




Industry News, NextGen Casual, Applebee's, Chili's, Golden Corral, IHOP, Olive Garden, Outback., Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesday, T.G.I. Friday's, Texas Roadhouse