The Restaurant Social Media Index top 10 brand rankings from the fourth quarter are in, and there’s been quite an unexpected shift. Tracking more than 4,000 brands, 41 million U.S. consumers and more than 60,000 industry terms in 179,561 locations, the RSMI has become the most comprehensive index of its kind and continues to become increasingly competitive. Restaurant and food brands are stepping up on social and dishing out innovative strategies of all kinds to connect to consumers.

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The top 10 restaurant brands

10. Taco Bell remains a consistent brand in the RSMI and continues to show improvement. The fast food brand is up from No. 14 in Q3. The last time Taco Bell was in the Top 10 was in Q2 2012 at No. 8.

9. Although Red Mango is one of the smallest concepts in the Top 10, the brand’s interesting leadership with Dan Kim, who also plays the role of master tweeter, is fun, fresh and punchy. Red Mango’s strong social presence has allowed the brand to maintain a strong position in the index, even though it slipped from the No. 4 spot in Q3.

8. Despite its PR firestorm, Chick-fil-A has managed to climb up a spot from No. 9 in Q3, thanks to the brand’s great engagement on Facebook and Twitter.

7. Hard Rock jumps to No. 7 from No. 12. This can be attributed to being a very active mobile brand, as well as maintaining a great presence on Facebook.

6. Jimmy John’s flat-lines at No. 6. Maintaining its very brand-specific social strategy, the gourmet sandwich company typically features behind-the-scenes shots of Jimmy John and friends, celebrities visiting the chain and sports-related posts. In short, they’re fun and transparent, which is always important.

5. Breaking into the Top 10 at the midpoint mark is Subway. The Eat Fresh brand had an increase in consumer sentiment in Q4, as well as an increase in engagement scores, meaning it tightened up its social strategy. Its move from No. 11 to the No. 5 spot can be attributed to more consistent brand messaging on Facebook and Twitter, as well as positioning itself in the sport and health & wellness industries.

4. Buffalo Wild Wings moved up four spots. With its target market and main market base being men who like sports, this makes sense, as the jump was probably a natural result of an increase in engagements during football season.

3. Holding the No. 3 spot is Wendy’s, a brand that’s managed to hold steady in the Top 10, as well as in the No. 3 spot (in Q3, anyway). The fast food brand has a lot of activity on social, has tremendous impact on Facebook and Twitter, and even has a slew of markets abroad, including North Africa, the Middle East and Japan.

2. Falling from its comfortable No. 1 spot for the first time in two years is Starbucks. The much-loved coffee brand’s service has consistently grown, and even rose in point scoring in Q4, but competition in the RSMI is heating up, with other large-scale brands outpacing others. Every point counts, and though Starbucks has one of the most loyal consumer bases, it just didn’t cut it this time around in comparison to the No. 1 brand.

1. Those who follow the RSMI may be surprised by the No. 1 brand on social in Q4 2012, but it was just a matter of time before all-American McDonald’s crept up to the top of the rankings. The fast food chain has done a great job at creating community around its brand, which has become apparent through its improvement in engagement score and consumer sentiment. This is a very impressive move in the Top 10, with McDonald’s rising almost 17 points over the past two quarters in consumer sentiment. This, along with the brand’s growth on Twitter and Facebook almost tripling the growth of Starbucks, all contributed to their rise to No. 1. Social consumer engagement also rose, contributing to a rise of five points in a single quarter.

Paul Barron is a Web entrepreneur who launched several successful restaurant and hospitality trade websites, events and think tanks. He is credited with starting the fast-casual restaurant revolution when he launched FastCasual.com in the 1990s. He is the founder of DigitalCoCo, a social media analytics and creative agency in South Florida.

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