Dec. 5, 2012 at 11:39 AM ET
The brand perception of Papa John's, Applebee's and Denny's took a beating after high-ranking representatives of the companies said Obamacare would force them to stop building restaurants, cut worker hours and raise prices.
After the comments, on a scale from 100 (totally positive) to -100 (totally negative), Papa John's score fell from 32 to 4, Applebee's score fell from 35 to to 5, and Denny's went from 10 to zero, then back to 6, according to a new survey.
Along with everyone else, the casual dining restaurant sector has been struggling to cope with the effects of the economic downturn. For example, Darden Restaurants, which operates Olive Garden, Red Lobster and LongHorn Steakhouse, on Tuesday lowered financial expectations, sending shares down 10.7 percent. Prior to that the company had been leading the industry.
In October, Darden experimented with using more part-time employees in an effort to avoid Obamacare costs. A flurry of negative media coverage ensued. On Thursday the company will announce that it won't be reducing any full-time employees to part-time status. The company cited the bad publicity around its workforce tests, along with promotions that weren't working, when it lowered its profit outlook for the year on Tuesday.
The reputation results come from an online YouGov BrandIndex survey of 5,000 adults 18+ who had eaten at casual dining restaurants in the past month. The survey asked respondents if they've heard anything in the last two weeks positive or negative about the brand and gives a score from 100 to -100. A score of zero means equally positive and negative feedback.
While correlation is not causation, there was a noted dropoff in the BrandIndex scores after the company figures made remarks about how the Affordable Care Act -- or Obamacare -- was going to hurt their business.
For instance, Papa John's founder John Schnatter estimated in an August 1 earnings call that Obamacare costs would add $.11 to $.14 in costs to every pizza.
"Let's say fuel goes up, which it does from time to time, and we have to raise delivery charges," said Schnatter in the Aug. 1 earnings call. "We don't like raising delivery charges, but the price of fuel is out of our control, as is Obamacare. So if Obamacare is, in fact, not repealed, we will find tactics to shallow out any Obamacare costs. And, of course, strategies to pass that cost onto consumers in order to protect our shareholders' best interest."
In November, Schnatter told a college class that he supposed Papa John's franchises would decide to cut worker hours to avoid paying health insurance. Under the Affordable Care Act, employers have to provide health insurance for employees working over 30 hours a week or face fines.
Reached for comment, Papa John's told TODAY that Papa John's franchises are independently owned and operated and decisions about hiring and wages were up to individual franchise owners. Andrew Varga, chief marketing officer of Papa John’s, told TODAY the publicized YouGov BrandIndex findings "were contradicted by the results of BrandIndex’s own general population study which showed a significant improvement in reputational scores" for the pizza chain.
Despite the drubbing the brand has taken in the press and social media following Schnatter's remarks, which Lance Tucker, Papa John's CFO told TODAY have been "misquoted and mis-reported," the company said "there is also no change in its current positive sales or earnings guidance."
CEO of an Applebee's franchise running 40 Applebee's restaurants, Zane Tankel, caught flack after he told Fox Business News that the Affordable Care Act would cost millions and force them to stop building restaurants. Voice and email messages left for Tankel were not returned.
Denny's franchise owner in West Palm Beach, Fla., John Metz, told the Huffington Post that Obamacare would force him to charge each customer 5 percent extra to offset the costs. Per company instructions on this issue, calls to Met'z franchisor headquarters were referred to an external PR firm, which did not return a request for comment.
Both Applebee'sand Denny's released statements saying they while they respected the free speech rights of their franchise owners, the comments by Tankel and Metz did not reflect corporate opinions or positions.
Mary Ellen Muckerman, head of strategy at international brand consultancy Wolff Olins, told TODAY that "Franchises are just as close to the brand as the corporate parents." Political statements per se are not forbidden, but the question is, "are the statements consistent with the overall brand purpose?" said Muckerman.
Luke Kachersky, Director of Research at The Center for Positive Marketing at Fordham University, told TODAY, "Modern branding has shifted from positioning in terms of brand benefits to positioning in terms of values. The reason for this change, ostensibly, is that sharing values with your customers opens up an avenue toward a more authentic and enduring relationship."
Brand experts say that when the brand communication is inconsistent with its core principals, the brand is subject to flux, diminishment -- or even erasure. That can lead to the consumer's brand preferences to getting plucked off by another stronger, more confident brand, and a decline in sales.
"A brand is just a collection of ideas," Barbara Findlay Schenck, author of "Branding for Dummies," told TODAY. "When suddenly the brand message shifted to political stances, bottom line prices, price increases and staff cutbacks, the inconsistency rocked brand strength, confidence, and preference."