In a few weeks, David Ovens will mark his third year as Taco Bell’s CMO. Ovens, who arrived from the quick-service Mex chain’s parent company (he was formerly chief marketer for Yum! Restaurants International’s Australian and New Zealand operations), also brings experience culled from outside the restaurant biz, at Unilever, Kimberly Clark and Johnson & Johnson. Since arriving at the Bell, Ovens has been doing the seemingly impossible for a brand that brought us the Chalupa: emphasizing healthier options. His work caused a media stir earlier this year after Taco Bell introduced a customer who’d allegedly lost 54 pounds in 18 months thanks to Taco Bell’s “Fresco” menu (wonder if she tossed out her old pants, á la Jared). AdweekMedia’s editor at large Noreen O’Leary recently caught up with Ovens to talk about how he’s been heating things up at the marketing department.
Brandweek: You’ve been at Taco Bell nearly three years now. What would you say that your marketing priorities have been during that period?
David Ovens: We reframed the brand’s value proposition from the Big Bell Value Menu, which made a lot of sense to employees but not necessarily to consumers. We’re reorganized around “Why Pay More!” and moved to advertising that was more consumer-centric, which was fortuitous since the economy tanked in late 2008. We reorganized our internal brand marketing team into three groups: price value, abundant value and quality value.
BW: Those areas sound pretty closely related. What does each group actually have to do?
DO: Price value literally means the 79-, 89- and 99-cent menu items and all the innovation required to keep that menu exciting. With abundant value, you have larger products in size and weight—things like a triple steak burrito—in contrast to products that have historically been small. We also combine existing menu items for a single price like the Five Buck Box. On the quality value team, we’re looking at new proteins, new forms.
BW: Your “Fresco” menu created quite a stir. Can you tell us a little of the story behind it?
DO: The quality team handles the Drive-Thru Diet, or Fresco. The idea was to provide expanded choice. We launched in May 2008 with products for customers seeking lower fat and calories. Consumers typically think “better for you” doesn’t taste good, so we added fresh, made-in-store pico de gallo and salsa. We’ve seen a very significant volume improvement in Fresco sales, and it’s one of our highest-repeat buys. That thinking has carried over into other areas: Our Frutista Freeze, launched in mid-2008, has no artificial flavors, and no high-fructose corn syrup. We’re not trying to sell it in that way, but our franchise community has said sales have exceeded all their expectations.
BW: When your spokesperson Christine Dougherty went public with the claim she’d lost 54 pounds eating at Taco Bell, you must have braced yourself for the media having a field day with it.
DO: There were initial negative remarks, but over the five-to-six weeks we ran the ads, 93 percent of the coverage was either neutral or positive. I liked it because rebranding Fresco products under Drive-Thru Diet added convenience to the idea. In 2007, Dougherty approached us with her story; we didn’t go looking for her. It’s not like she was 400 pounds; she was symbolic of most people who carry a few extra pounds and want to get into good shape. We involved a nutritionist and dietician to make sure we could reference experts.
BW: Weight loss aside, is Fresco also aimed at getting more women to eat at Taco Bell? After all, your core customers are young males.
DO: It wasn’t premeditated that way. [We wanted to make] sure that whoever you are you understand Taco Bell has a legitimate menu in this regard.
BW: In fact, you’ve got quite a few other things going on in the R&D department, don’t you?
DO: We ran shrimp in March and are introducing new, slow-roasted pork carnitas. We’re doing more innovation around new premium proteins, not just chicken and steak. We’re also working on day parts: For late night, we’ve developed a “fourth meal” concept around music called Feed the Beat. For breakfast we’re in test in Tucson, Bakersfield, Dayton and Baton Rouge with a traditional breakfast at Taco Bell value prices. In Southern California, we have concept stores looking at beverages and snacking. We’re also trying out three premium-style beverages, [including] a Frappuccino blended drink.
BW: You’ve also invested in sponsorships with the NBA and MLB. How’s that going?
DO: We test marketed a Five Buck Box, and it achieved a certain result. But when you add the excitement of the NBA and include a celebrity like Charles Barkley, it really elevates the idea. The execution in February was between 50 to 70 percent higher than the result we got in test market. We want a bigger, bolder relationship with our sponsors.
BW: What about your digital and social media strategies? Is that getting more of your attention?
DO: On Facebook, we have 1.5 million friends and that has been grown almost organically. So we’re thinking of ways to explore, expand and develop that space. With Twitter, we have Taco Bell trucks that are sent around the country to events, and we use Twitter to follow the truck. When people hear it is coming their way, they send messages, and there’s been a great volume of tweets. We also recently launched a “Super Delicious Ingredient Force” microsite which is a throwback to 1980’s superhero cartoons. Within the first three to four weeks, we’ve had well over 300,000 hits. We’re now looking at future Webisodes and ways of expanding that method of communication.