Starbucks Is Crowned the Most Intimate Brand in Fast Food

In uncertain times, indulgent products are especially key to deeper customer loyalty

a starbucks barista at a drive thru window
Starbucks has prioritized to-go and drive-thru ordering during the pandemic. Starbucks
Headshot of Kaila Mathis

Key Insights:

In an age of redefined relationships between brands and customers, two fast-food companies have proven that an emphasis on indulgence and public service create the deepest bonds.

Among fast-food brands, Starbucks nabbed the top spot, with Chick-fil-A as the runner up, in the Brand Intimacy 2020 Study by MBLM, an emotional science-based agency. The annual study, now in its 10th year, examines which brands have created the deepest bonds with customers.

That intimacy translates directly into boosting companies’ bottom lines: The top-scoring brands “significantly outperform the top brands in the Fortune 500 and S&P indices in both revenue and profit,” according to MBLM.

Within the fast food industry, the Top 5 for 2020 were:

  1. Starbucks
  2. Chick-fil-A
  3. McDonald’s
  4. Dunkin’
  5. Subway

In 2019’s study, the rankings were:

  1. Chick-fil-A
  2. Dunkin’
  3. Starbucks
  4. McDonald’s
  5. Taco Bell

What brought on the shifts in the rankings? There is the worldwide pandemic that turned everything upside down. Amid the stress of tumultuous times, consumers are placing increased importance on the value of indulgence.

Mario Natarelli, managing partner at MBLM, explained in a statement the importance of “understanding how and why consumers express their connections during Covid,” saying, “Now more than ever, positive emotions can drive performance.”

According to the study, in a time when dining in at restaurants is still being restricted, fast food brands “long associated with pleasure and convenience continue to provide relief and are a growing source of comfort.”

It also stated that quick service brands make immediate emotional connections at a rate of 46.1%, as compared to the rate of 38.5% across all industries.

In reviewing social listening research captured during the week of June 15, MBLM found that users were very emotional when speaking about Starbucks, and were 9.6 times more likely to talk about missing the brand as compared to competitors. Customers speak of missing interactions with baristas and enjoying their favorite drinks in the shop, with a strong emphasis on the comfort brought on by the coffee chain’s products.

Chick-fil-A gained more appreciation for its reliability. By keeping its drive-thru lines efficient, the brand was able to hit on consumer desire for fulfillment. While still at the No. 3 spot, McDonald’s is seen as less reliable, especially as it canceled its beloved all-day breakfast mid-pandemic.

A large portion of consumer loyalty during this time can be attributed to individual brands’ actions to help others during the crisis. Starbucks launched its Global Partner Emergency Relief Program, which is helping employees directly affected by the pandemic. Chick-fil-A is distributing $10.8 million in community relief funds through its franchisees. Subway, which rose one spot from last year, gained brand intimacy through its donations to medical workers over the past few months.

While these brands have been able to retain loyal customers throughout the pandemic, they haven’t been exempt from the tolls of the pandemic. Starbucks reported an expected $2.2 billion income plunge in the current quarter, and lower sales throughout the rest of 2020, especially as it closes down 400 locations. Dunkin’s first-ever nationwide recruitment drive is said to be a response to fear on the part of workers and customers associated with ordering in person. And going forward, experts believe at-home consumption may continue to disrupt restaurant chains.

Don't miss the Brandweek Sports Marketing Summit and Upfronts, a live virtual experience Nov. 16-19. Gain insights from leading sports figures on how they navigated a year of upsets and transformation and what's in store for the coming year. Register. 

Kaila is a graduating senior at Villanova University pursuing a degree in PR & Advertising and Journalism. She is currently working as the Social Media Manager for CLLCTVE, and covers brand marketing and retail stories as a contributor for Adweek.