Millennials are beefing up restaurant brands, awarding higher than average brand equity to Coffee and Quick Service, Casual Dining and Chicken restaurants, according to new research from The Harris Poll's 29th annual EquiTrend Study, which measures brand health over time. The study, which reveals the strongest brands across the media, travel, financial, automotive, entertainment, retail, restaurant, technology, household and nonprofit industries based on consumer response, also indicates that Fast Casual Mexican and Pizza chains have notably lower brand equity among baby boomers.

According to Harris Poll's research, when analyzing restaurant brand equity by generation, Coffee and Quick Service Restaurant brand equity is nearly 5 points (+4.7) higher among millennials compared to baby boomers, while Casual Dining and Chicken restaurants are each four points higher. Conversely, Pizza (-8.0) and Fast Casual Mexican (-7.6) restaurants see a marked gap among baby boomers, pushing the overall equity for these restaurant categories below average. Since brand equity tends to resist movement, the equity gains and declines among restaurant brands is significant.

"Restaurants continue to adapt to the millennial lifestyle, and advancements in ordering methods such as Starbucks' mobile app and Chick-fil-A's 'Mom Valet' are likely influencing millennials' higher brand equity scores," said Joan Sinopoli, vice president of brand solutions at The Harris Poll. "While the millennial dollar is powerful and attractive—and many are clearly enjoying their rising disposable income— baby boomers already have the cash to spend on meals out and need to be courted. The baby boomer versus millennial gap among pizza chains and Mexican restaurants may reflect boomers' needs to eat healthier and the fact that they no longer have kid palates to please – and that signals opportunity for restaurants on the healthier end of the chain continuum to target them in their messaging and menu offerings." 

The EquiTrend Brand Equity Index is comprised of three factors—Familiarity, Quality and Purchase Consideration—that result in a brand equity rating for each brand. Brands ranking highest in equity receive the Harris Poll EquiTrend "Brand of the Year" award for their respective categories. This year, more than 100,000 US consumers assessed more than 4,000 brands (including 90 restaurant brands) across more than 450 categories.

View the full Harris Poll EquiTrend Brands of the Year list.

Starbucks Makes Brand of the Year Debut
This year marks Starbucks' debut as Coffee and Quick Service Restaurant Brand of the Year, narrowly surpassing three-time honoree Dunkin' Donuts. While Familiarity, Quality and Purchase Consideration scores are tight between Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, Krispy Kreme and Einstein Bros Bagels, Starbucks pulls ahead based on the strength of its Familiarity score.

Harris Poll's research shows that 11% of millennials and 10% of Gen X consumers visit Starbucks daily, higher than the generations' restaurant visit averages (5% millennials, 1% Gen X).

"Given the ever-present morning rush lines at Starbucks, the fact that millennials and Gen X make daily Starbucks runs might not be entirely surprising, but it is telling," said Sinopoli. "With its engaging rewards app and high-end Starbucks Reserve brand, Starbucks is proactively pursuing millennials and quite frankly, doing it better than most right now."

A Battle of Fan Favorites: Five Guys Dethrones In-N-Out Burger 
Five Guys, first time Burger Restaurant Brand of the Year, ousts two-time honoree In-N-Out Burger, followed by (in order): Shake Shack, Wendy's, Culver's, Whataburger, McDonald's, SONIC America's Drive-In, Smashburger and Steak 'n Shake.

While McDonald's holds the highest Familiarity score across all brands measured in Harris Poll's EquiTrend study, Five Guys leads the Burger Restaurant category in Purchase Consideration, pushing it to the top of the list.

"The burger brand category has become less fragmented, as regional brands expand and become available in more parts of the country," said Sinopoli. "This is certainly the case with Five Guys, who has shed its 'small regional player' designation as it expands its footprint and marketing budget—along with its fandom, which is a tremendous contributor to brand equity."

Moe's Southwest Grill Leads with High Quality and Consideration Marks
Moe's Southwest Grill retains its Fast Casual Mexican Restaurant Brand of the Year title for the second consecutive year. While Moe's continues to have relatively low Familiarity, it leads the category in Quality and Consideration scores. Similar to other highest-ranked brands, Moe's sees higher equity ratings among millennials (+5.8), compared to older consumers.

"Moe's has a unique tie to pop culture and knack for engaging customers that's appealing to its core consumer," said Sinopoli.

Baja Fresh Mexican Grill and Taco Bell follow Moe's in brand equity ratings. Chipotle, which led the category from 2013 – 2015 but now ranks below the category average, gained a notable 4.8 points versus a year ago, but has yet to fully recover from its decline driven by issues with food-borne illness.

Other Key Findings
Additional restaurant findings include:

Overall, restaurants receive above average brand equity scores, and Ice Cream and FroYo Shops, a new category measured this year, leads all restaurant categories in brand equity (69.2).
Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Shop is the inaugural Brand of the Year in the Ice Cream and FroYo Shop category, based on its strong Quality and Purchase Consideration ratings – scores which are among the top ten across all award brands.

Subway is the Sandwich Shop Brand of the Year for the seventh consecutive year. The brand has shown strong and stable equity over the last 13 years, and while it holds similar equity scores across generations, its reported frequency of visits favor younger generations.
The Cheesecake Factory makes its study debut as the Casual Dining Brand of the Year, leading the category in Quality and Purchase Consideration. Its brand equity is largely driven by younger consumers.

For the fourth consecutive year, Chick-fil-A takes Chicken Restaurant Brand of the Year honors. The restaurant's brand equity is boosted by millennials (9 equity points higher compared to baby boomers) and consumers with children. (Equity score of 73 among consumers with kids, 66 consumers without kids.)

For the first time since 2012, Papa John's is the Pizza Chain Brand of the Year. It shows a significant increase in Quality and Purchase Consideration to unseat Pizza Hut, which held the top brand honor for the last four years. Following Papa John's (in order): Blaze Pizza (new to EquiTrend in 2017), Pizza Hut, and Marco's Pizza (new to EquiTrend in 2017).