Taco Bell is 'America's favorite Mexican restaurant'

Taco Bell is America’s favorite “Mexican restaurant,” according to a new survey.

The fast food chain beat out Chipotle (CMG) and Moe’s Southwest Grill to win “Brand of the Year” for the first time since Harris launched its EquiTrend Study 30 years ago.

The Harris Poll EquiTrend Study measures the overall health of a brand by asking consumers questions based on three variables — familiarity, quality and future consideration. The results are aggregated into a one-number score.

This year, Taco Bell (YUM) surpassed Chipotle and Moe’s Southwest Grill, the latter of which was the Brand of the Year in 2016 and 2017. Prior to that, Chipotle ranked as the No. 1 Mexican restaurant brand, but its standing was severely impacted by various outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. The fast casual and health-conscious chain experienced a 10.7 point drop in 2016 because of the negative sentiment surrounding the brand. Other choices included Qdoba, Baja Fresh and Del Taco.

Source: Harris Poll
Source: Harris Poll

Taco Bell has gained traction with innovative product offerings, by serving breakfast and creative selections like Mexican Crispy Chicken Pizza and the Naked Egg Taco. The brand rolled out limited edition Nacho Fries earlier this year, which was the most successful product launch in Taco Bell’s history.

“Taco Bell’s marketing is ubiquitous so it wasn’t surprising to me that they came out on top this year. It’s not so much that Moe’s or Chipotle are falling off the map. Taco Bell has just been a stronger brand as of late, as demonstrated by the strong familiarity and consideration marks,” said Amir Kanpurwala, the director of the survey.

The 2018 Harris Poll EquiTrend Study is based on a sample of 77,031 U.S. consumers at least 15 years old surveyed online, in English, this year from January 3 to February 15.

Credit: Flickr, Antonio Morales García
Credit: Flickr, Antonio Morales García

Chipotle’s potential comeback

Brian Niccol, the very leader who is credited for Taco Bell’s resurgence, became Chipotle’s CEO on March 5. Niccol served as CEO of Taco Bell for three and a half years, but had been a part of the Yum Brands ecosystem since 2005, in roles ranging from chief marketing officer at Pizza Hut to chief marketing and innovation officer at Taco Bell. He introduced the “Live Más” tagline, breakfast and popular offerings like Doritos Locos Tacos and the Cantina Power menu.

In an interview with Yahoo Finance, Niccol said consumers should anticipate some exciting new offerings at Chipotle, including beverages, desserts, happy hour specials and late night bites.

“We want to obviously be very consistent with our mission, which is food with integrity. We also want to be very consistent with leveraging the operational capability that we have. And then where it makes sense, we’ll innovate around the operating model so that we can provide great food experiences that extend Chipotle’s reach,” he said.

Niccol has been rolling out his digital-first, innovation-focused vision. The company has been pushing a new television ad that emphasizes the freshness of its ingredients. Last week, the company announced it would start delivering its food through a partnership with startup DoorDash.

According to Kanpurwala, investors are hoping Niccol, as a creative leader, will replicate the same success he had at Taco Bell as he enters a new chapter at Chipotle. We’ll see if the fruits of his efforts are reflected in next year’s poll.

Melody Hahm is a senior writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.

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