As consumers become increasingly health-conscious, fast food brands are launching new products and drafting health-related communications strategies. Because they are entering a public discourse inherently hostile to their industry, they should get prepared by analysing the debate through sophisticated media analytics and measurement. In this blog post, we discuss the central topics in the fast food coverage and the brands at the forefront of the conversation.

Many of the most heated debates in the food and drink industry circle around fast food, a segment which, alongside fast casual, accounts for more than 50% of sales in the entire restaurant sector. Fast food continues to grow in popularity due to the accelerating pace of life in urban areas and the need for quicker and cheaper meals. The market is likely to be worth more than $690.80 billion in 2022, developing at a compound annual growth rate of more than 4.20%, according to Zion Market Research. Additional boosts are provided by the increase in online ordering and the multiplication of app-based companies offering delivery services.

But the development of the market in the forecast period might be obstructed by the ever-increasing health awareness among customers. While consumer tastes shift to healthier meals, fast food maintains its long-standing reputation for being unhealthy, to the extent that researchers draw comparisons with the tobacco sector. The opening address of the sixtieth session of the World Health Organisation’s Assembly stated: “Tobacco and junk food—here’s how they’re the same: we all know that both are bad. It’s a universally-accepted truth that tobacco and junk food are implicated among the leading causes of premature death and chronic disease. Both are incredibly addictive.”

An empirical and historical analysis, published in healthcare journal Milbank Quarterly, claimed that there are similarities between the tobacco and food industry in terms of the practices, messages and strategies to influence public opinion, legislation and regulation. In particular, there are significant similarities in the actions that these two industries have taken in response to the concerns that their products cause harm.

In the 1950s, when several retrospective studies showed a link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, the tobacco sector tried to avert shifts in public opinion that would harm profits. The researchers claim that the messages conveyed by Big Tobacco resemble the messages by the fast food industry. Spokespeople have focused on personal consumer tastes as the cause of unhealthy lifestyles while raising fears that stricter government regulations undermine freedom of choice.

A recipe for controversy

Fast food spokespeople have often stated that there are no good or bad foods, but there are good or bad diets instead, underlining that consumers are entirely responsible for what they eat. Such messages are most effective in the US, where personal responsibility and freedom are historically central values.

But a growing number of journalists, scholars, health campaigners and celebrity chefs blame fast food companies for contributing to global obesity. Other allegations include unethical treatment of animals, worker exploitation and deceitful marketing.

In response, some food and drink players are keen to promote themselves as “part of the solution”. In 2011, the International Food  & Beverage Alliance (IFBA) – a coalition between giants such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestlé, Mars, Unilever and others – wrote to the World Health Organisation (WHO): “We all recognise that non-communicable diseases and childhood obesity are major public health problems that require multi-stakeholder solutions. As a member of the private sector, we firmly believe that the food industry has a role to play as part of the solution, and have committed our time, expertise and resources to do our part.”

New tastes

The most powerful approach to dealing with criticism has proved to be the introduction of more health-friendly menu items. For fast food chains, this is not only a response to critics but also a way of catching up with a trend, which sees people under 40 preferring organic or free-range food. A report by Nielsen showed that 41% of Generation Z and 32% of Millennials would “pay a premium for sustainably sourced ingredients”.

Traditional fast food companies look stale and old to millennials, especially as compared to the ones selling choose-your-own fresh salads. They are desperate to get customers into the stores,” Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, told BBC.

This has led to the popularity of the ‘better for you’ brands such as Dig Inn, By Chloe and Sweetgreen, which try to rival corporations such as McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC. Health-centred quick service firms are creating their own niche by concentrating on organic, locally sourced meals.

Such discussions make health topic number one in the most recent fast food coverage:

There is new content on health and fast food almost every month, not least because researchers publish new studies on the subject relatively frequently. The most commonly quoted research in the media of late was conducted by the US  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Health Statistics, which found that more than 1 in 3 adults eat fast food on a given day. Another recent widely reported research concluded that sit-down restaurants in the UK are actually unhealthier than fast-food chains.

The Effects of Fast Food on the Body, Fast Food Health Risks That Will Shock You and This is your body on fast food are good examples for the kind of articles which become top trending on social media. In accordance with the new consumer trends, there is also a growing number of articles with titles such as What Are The Healthier Options On Fast Food Menus?, The 30 Healthiest Things You Can Order at Every Major Fast Food Joint and 10 healthiest fast food restaurants.

The multitude of such articles is explained by the common perception that consumers won’t stop eating fast food, but they can make healthier choices. As Sara Bleich, professor of public health policy at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, put it: “People aren’t just going to stop eating at fast-food restaurants tomorrow. A more achievable goal is for more people to pick healthier items when they eat there.” Most articles concentrate on young consumers, highlighting that millennials take a more proactive approach to healthy eating, take the time to research before they eat out, and are more willing to pay higher prices for what they perceive to be better food.

Critics of fast food tend to focus on children’s health. In the past few years, consumer advocacy groups have pressed restaurant chains to offer healthier kids’ meals, and many fast food restaurants, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and Subway, responded by introducing healthier menus.

Childhood obesity is also what makes marketing a prominent topic in the coverage. The American Psychological Association claims that there are strong associations between increases in advertising for non-nutritious foods and rates of childhood obesity. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that half of food and drink advertisements children see on television are for junk food and sugary drinks.

In the UK, the mayor of London has announced a ban on junk food ads across the capital’s public transport – an initiative supported by 82% of residents, according to the Mayor’s Office. The ban is part of a wider strategy to reduce obesity in London, where nearly 40% of children are classed as overweight or obese. In a press release, Khan said: “It’s clear that advertising plays a huge part in the choices we make, whether we realize it or not, and Londoners have shown overwhelming support for a ban on adverts for junk food and drink on our transport network.”

A McDonald’s spokesperson told CNBC that the chain would not be affected because it started offering healthy products: “We believe that customers choose what and when they eat, and we work hard to help them make informed choices. When it comes to advertising and marketing, we have always taken our responsibilities extremely seriously. We never advertise products considered to be high in fat, salt or sugar to children and are already in the process of changing our directional adverts in London which signpost nearby restaurants.”

Fast market

In addition to the shifts in consumer preferences, journalists and analysts note that there are several major market trends shaping the future of the industry. Some of the top trending articles report that fast food brands have started introducing regional specific franchises, while big chains such as McDonald’s have implemented order-ahead services and self-service kiosks. This comes at a time when consumers are more willing to leverage technology in their day-to-day life.

Expansion is a key topic in business news. For example, MOS Burger, the biggest burger chain in Japan, plans to open around 100 stores across Australia, and UK fast food chain Leon launched in the US. Meanwhile, Plant Power Fast Food, a start-up plant-based fast food chain, expanded with a new location in California. “Motivated by various concerns ranging from personal health, the environment and animal welfare, an expanding number of consumers are reducing the amount of meat and dairy in their diet,” said Lori Amos, marketing and PR executive at Scout 22, which represents the brand.

Plant-based menus are also widely discussed in reports on product launches, since many brands capitalise on the vegetarian and vegan trend. For example, Del Taco announced that it has partnered with Beyond Meat, a plant-based meat alternatives manufacturer, to introduce vegan options to two of its Los Angeles locations. Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown wrote in a statement: “At Beyond Meat we believe we are in the business of helping you eat what you love while enjoying the health, environmental and animal welfare benefits of plant-based foods. Our partnership with Del Taco reflects this belief in action.” The statement became viral on Twitter, with many users asking when the plant-based options will be introduced across the country.

The debates around meat alternatives feature in many articles on the topics of health, market trends, expansions and product launches. The meat substitutes market is gaining momentum, driven by lively media coverage. To find out how this trend unfolds, read our analysis: Meat Alternatives: Cooking Up a Market Disruption.

Brands on the media menu

Apart from health, working conditions is the most controversial topic in the fast food coverage. The most widely covered news on this subject recently was the strike organised by McDonald’s employees targeting sexual harassment at work. The protest aligned with the global ‘Me Too’ movement and helped make McDonald’s the most often mentioned brand:

McDonald’s, the symbol of fast food, is constantly under fire. In a recent interview, Steve Hill, a senior director of global brand at the company, said: “The one truism of our brand, and one of the reasons I wanted to work for the company, is that people have an opinion about it — whether it’s a good opinion, a bad opinion or an indifferent opinion, we’re a culturally significant brand. Sometimes that works against us, but it can also work in our favour.”

KFC was branded “irresponsible” after it opened a restaurant metres away from a primary school in an area where nearly one in four reception age children in the area is overweight. In the meantime, it has emerged that KFC is perceived as high-quality food in China: it’s the most popular chain in the country’s emerging fast food market, and its dominance has been boosted by appealing to local tastes. The company also became one of the first big fast-food chains in the city to take step towards reducing plastic use by ditching plastic straws and drink lids for dine-in customers in Hong Kong and Macau.

McDonald’s main competitor, Burger King, intensified one of the most prominent rivalries in American business by offering customers a Whopper burger for just a penny if they place their order from a McDonald’s restaurant. This marketing effort was well-documented by the media, with journalists noting that Burger King often promotes itself in unusual ways: CNBC wrote that it staged a car fire for Good Samaritan Day, created Whopper doughnuts for National Doughnut Day and launched a sandwich to celebrate the Royal Wedding.

But according to some reports, the biggest fast food feud of 2018 was Wendy’s versus McDonald’s, with Wendy’s starting a TV ad campaign that calls out McDonald’s for using frozen beef patties in its burgers:

Taco Bell plans to open 50 new restaurants across Australia and it aims to bolster its presence in New York with a new Cantina concept and self-serve kiosks. In a press release, the company said: “New York has historically been an underserved market for Taco Bell, but we’re changing that, and have agreements on 125 metro New York restaurants in the next five years.” In addition, the article Taco Bell Is Officially One of the Healthiest Fast Food Chains, published on Taste of Home magazine, is the top trending fast food piece on social media, with 152.1K Facebook engagements.

Subway is mentioned for its plans to kill its $5 footlong promotion, with some commentators remarking that the chain has been struggling. Rachel Hyland, a restaurant industry analyst at IBISWorld, said: “While Subway was once the poster child for ‘health fast food,’ consumers have become more aware of the nutritional content of lunch meats and white breads.”

Pizza Hut and Chipotle feature in the coverage due to their new items for health-conscious consumers. Pizza Hut UK introduced a vegan-friendly jackfruit pizza, while Chipotle introduced a new lifestyle menu, tweeting: “Nobody wants to hear about your New Year’s resolutions. And with our new menu shortcuts nobody will have to (because your mouth will be full). Meet our new #keto, #Whole30, #paleo and #highprotein bowls.”

Analysts predict that Chick-fil-A will become the third-largest fast-food brand in the US. Business Insider reports that in 2017, Chick-fil-A sales were up 14.2%, and as of July 2018, sales were up another 15.5%. Growth was also the main topic in the coverage of Yum! Brands, a company which operates Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut and WingStreet, and whose shares have gained 19.1% in the past six months.

The rise of the health-conscious consumer means that fast food brands will increasingly try to promote their new product ranges as the healthiest in the market. Companies will also aim to distinguish themselves by highlighting their sourcing practices and child-friendly options. As we’ve already noted, the best way to reach a health-conscious audience is through a clear idea about the values that define your brand – these consumers are not simply buying products, they are masking certain lifestyle statements.

Our analysis shows that fast food players are ditching communication tactics focusing on consumer responsibility and are starting to convey new health-related messages. In this way, they are entering a public discourse inherently hostile to their industry. With this in mind, fast food corporations should start a gradual shift in public opinion by analysing the conversations in the media through sophisticated media analytics and measurement.

For more insights into how advanced media analytics can be used for developing communications and brand positioning strategies, check our Social Media Analysis on UK Casual Dining.