Casual vs Fast Casual – A comparison of media spending and social media

Casual Dining, Fast Casual. There has been much written about the battle for your stomach being waged between the two concept categories. Casual Dining, the aging champ, still hoping to hold on to its crown and Fast Casual, the plucky upstart finding new ways to surprise its foe and customers alike.

Fast Casual YOY sales growth is noted as almost double the rest of the restaurant industry. Traffic and sales for both categories can be easily compared. Digging a bit deeper, there is something else at play beyond those trend lines. In lieu of another inspection of those regularly reported numbers, we compared expenditures in media.

Using Kantar*, we pulled media spending for a two-year period by five brands casual dining and six fast casual brands. As you can see, over the course of two years casual dining spent almost 10 times as much as their competitors in fast casual. In television they spent over 10 times as much over that same timespan!

media spending casual dining fast casual

What’s telling is where the competition is closer: online. Fast casual brands spend just over half as much as the casual dining brands in the digital space. Not reported here is paid social and influencer marketing. For context, an analysis of four other brand categories outside of the restaurant space (beverage, CPG, finance, hospitality) we found that casual dining is actually the lowest reported spender in the digital space.

Looking at their media spend one might assume the growth was flip-flopped. But if media spend is a measure of outbound marketing, we wanted to juxtapose that against a measure of brand affinity and potentially loyalty – social media**. Looking at the same brands in casual an fast casual, we counted the social subscribers, comment volume and net sentiment of those comments over the same two year period as the media spends above.

social media metrics casual dining fast casual

Our hypothesis going into this research was that more media spend would lead to superior social media performance. But immediately, you can see spending 10 times as much on television only earns Casual Dining brands 17% more social media posts on average. Obviously, media is not being spent to attain social media comments, but at these rates, Casual Dining spent $329 per comment as a category; Fast Casual, $113. Staggering difference.

On top of that, the net sentiment of those posts is much higher for Fast Casual brands – and that’s including Chipotle’s terrible net sentiment of 47% – which brings down the average due to many posts about their recent woes.

Sentiment is important because it tells us whether people are posting positive or negative content about the topic, in this case – brands. Sentiment is measured here on a scale of -100 to +100, with zero being neutral. More people may be posting about Casual Dining brands, but those posting about Fast Casual brands are saying overwhelmingly positive things. Prior to Chipotle’s food safety lapses, we had recorded a net sentiment over 80 for the brands and used them as an example of positive sentiment.

Both post volume and sentiment might be a result of how these brands are using those online media dollars. Fast Casual definitely has tighter social integration in store and in online ad campaigns.

Where Casual Dining is leading obviously is in the number of Facebook subscribers (Likes). As a metric, they’re up 2-to-1 on Fast Casual. And isolating the online media spend of both category, Fast Casual has invested $3 for each Facebook page like, while Casual Dining spent only $2.54 as a category for each of theirs. This is actually indicative of the problem Casual Dining brands are having. Facebook has the oldest user base of all social platforms in the US, with the fastest growing user segment being those over 50. Facebook still has a large base of youthful users, but reaching them via the channel is nearly impossible without paying – organic reach is down around 6%.

As you can see, Casual Dining brands are clearly missing something. They’re spending much more than their Fast competition, but getting less in the way of sales and social recognition. In an upcoming post, we’ll provide deeper analysis into these comparative numbers.

Complete charts:
media spend social metrics casual dining fast casual
Want these numbers for your own? Get the raw sheet here.

*Kantar, though an industry standard tool for competitive media spend analysis, is only a guide. The numbers below are therefore best described as “reported spend.” Most mass media investments, such as national television are reliably included, while sponsorships and events will be predictably under-reported.

**All social data was pulled using Netbase. Without access to each account, we’re unable to track engagement on an account and post level or other deep funnel metrics. Posts reported are filtered to exclude content by each respective brand about itself.