Tim Hortons, Burger King and Brand Loyalty

In one of the more unusual—but completely brand-appropriate—restaurant publicity stunts we’ve seen in some time, Tim Hortons last week transformed a Calgary home into a popup Tim’s. For one morning, the unassuming house sported a neon Tim Hortons sign over its garage and was outfitted inside with a doughnut display case, a service counter and café seating. Free doughnuts and coffee were available to neighborhood residents from 6 a.m. to noon. The endeavor was meant to promote Canada’s No. 1 restaurant chain (by 2013 sales) as a friendly place to work and highlight a new company initiative to hire more than 5,000 workers across Canada.

It’s the kind of stunt that’s a natural fit for Tim Hortons precisely because so many Canadians are happy to welcome the chain, figuratively, into their homes and their lives. In a survey of 1,000 Canadian consumers for Technomic’s new Canadian Beverage Consumer Trend Report, 73% of respondents said they had bought a beverage at Tim Hortons in the past month. It’s little wonder, then, that the chain’s announced merger with Miami-based Burger King prompted a fair amount of hand-wringing over whether Tim’s Canadian-icon status might be in jeopardy. Though the companies took pains to emphasize that each brand will be managed independently, some observers have questioned how an American burger behemoth that would rather be edgy than homespun can fit with Canadians’ friendly, reliable coffee go-to. The two chains have different strengths when it comes to branding and cultivating customer loyalty, however, and each could take cues from the other.

Technomic’s Consumer Brand Metrics research finds that Tim Hortons earns very strong “brand image” ratings from Canadian consumers. In fact, among 27 limited-service restaurant chains, Tim Hortons ranks No. 1 with consumers on the attributes of “is socially responsible,” “has advertising I can relate to” and “supports local community activities.” Consumers also place the chain near the top (behind Starbucks) among QSRs on the measure of “has an excellent reputation.” Tim Hortons gets significantly higher brand-image marks from Canadian consumers than Burger King does from American consumers—both in terms of scores on each attribute and rankings relative to other QSRs.

Of course, Tim Hortons’ strong performance on brand image comes as no surprise; the chain prides itself on its “Making a True Difference” commitment to being a good corporate citizen. Its charitable and corporate responsibility initiatives—visible and well-recognized within the community—range from hosting camps for economically disadvantaged children (through the 40-year-old Tim Hortons Children’s Foundation) to creating the Tim Hortons Sustainable Food Management Fund at the University of Guelph. Earlier this year, Tim Hortons issued a 28-page report on its sustainability and responsibility efforts for 2013; Burger King, in comparison, devotes three paragraphs on its website to “our commitment to the environment.”

But when we look at brand loyalty—indicating how consumers’ experiences with a brand might translate into repeat business—Burger King does better. On several brand loyalty attributes (affordability, intent to return, ability to satisfy everyone in dining party/group, “this was the right place for this meal/snack occasion” and “this restaurant serves food prepared the way I want it”) Burger King earns higher scores among its U.S. guests than Tim Hortons does among its Canadian audience. The most marked difference in brand-loyalty scores for the two chains is on the attribute of “ability to satisfy everyone in dining party/group”: 73% of American customers agreed or strongly agreed that BK satisfied everyone in their dining party; 64% of Canadian customers said the same for Tim Hortons.

The variances in brand-loyalty scores among audiences in the chain’s home markets aren’t huge. But Tim Hortons’ dip in scores relative to Burger King on brand loyalty—despite Tim Hortons’ wide lead over BK on brand image—suggests that although Canadians have decidedly positive perceptions of what Tim Hortons is, they’re less enthusiastic than they could be about what the chain does in its restaurants. Relative to other QSRs in Canada, Tim Hortons doesn’t fare nearly as well on food-related attributes such as “food taste and flavour” and “craveable items I can only get at this restaurant” as it does on brand-image measures. Craveability has always been central to Burger King’s marketing messages and menu promotions, whether the focus is on the chain’s signature grilled-to-order burgers topped just the way guests like or on indulgent specialty items (such as Chicken Fries and the half-pound A.1. Ultimate Bacon Cheeseburger).

Tim Hortons might be able to take a page from Burger King on creating and promoting foods and beverages that grab guests’ attention—items that aren’t just reliable, but unique and truly craveable. This can be especially valuable as Tim Hortons looks to expand further in the U.S. and globally. And on the other side, given that consumers (and highly sought-after Millennials in particular) are increasingly attuned to issues of corporate responsibility, Burger King might do well to consider how Tim Hortons has engaged customers and other stakeholders on a variety of social and environmental initiatives.

Earlier this month, as reported by Nation’s Restaurant News, Tim Hortons announced preliminary Q3 same-store sales growth of 3.6% for Canada (7% for U.S. restaurants); Burger King reported that same-store sales in North America were up 3.7% for the quarter. The two chains have long, rich histories and core groups of loyal customers. The different branding strengths they bring to the table in this merger have the potential to position both for continued success.

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Darren Tristano

Darren Tristano is President of Technomic Inc. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations.

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  1. Thanks Darren Tristano, wonderfully written on brand loyalty.

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