Op-Ed: Taco Bell Takes a Lickin’ But Comes Out Kickin’

By Kiran Aditham 

Virginia Alber-Glanstaetten, group director of planning at Huge, has returned with her monthly column for this here site, this time discussing a certain fast-food chain that has gone from zero to hero in the shortest time. Now, who’s in the mood for a Fiery? Take it away, Virginia.

Just earlier this summer, Taco Bell faced a Public Relations nightmare when an employee posted a picture of himself licking taco shells on Facebook. The photo was part of an internal contest supposed to feature employees enjoying their first taste of a new product. While the news was everywhere at the time, it did little to slow down the Taco Bell marketing juggernaut, hailed last week as 2013’s “Marketer of the Year.” So, for anyone not already paying attention, I decided to crowdsource from my team the biggest lessons for marketers from Taco Bell’s recent success:


1.    Fail fast, and move on. Taco Bell realized quickly in 2011 that dumb white guy humor wasn’t getting them what they needed. A focus on product innovation and the realization that Taco Bell was, for many, a staple part of their diet — helped them successfully Live Mas. Taco Bell did not waste a cycle on lame humor, but quickly sought new ways to position themselves as both relevant and real, leaving their past positioning behind.

2.    Partner Smart. Partnerships come in many forms. Whether it’s a product, brand, or a digital technology partnership, you need to associate with brands that will add value to the customer experience. We all know that the Doritos partnership was super smart—it makes total sense—and 45 product tests later, Taco Bell was in the money with their first Doritos shell. It wasn’t just a great product innovation, it tapped into an emotional and experiential component that lives on long after you’ve finished eating: nostalgia, deeply appealing to Taco Bell’s target market. Nostalgia aside, there are a total of 126 different types of Doritos flavors around the world, which leaves Taco Bell a plethora of options and can guarantee that people will be less and less consumed with where the beef is, and more about which taco shell to choose.

3.    Mixing it Up Inside the Media Mix: Brian Niccol says Taco Bell has not really changed its media mix: 70% above the line, 20% on digital, and 10% on emerging media. But Taco Bell has definitely mixed it up within these channels, incorporating user-generated content into TV spots and pushing the envelope for the QSR category by using newer platforms such as Vine and Snapchat. While Taco Bell may still be beholden to a more conservative media model, it did not stop them from finding ways to really push how the mix could work in their favor.

4.    Going Beyond Social: These days, having a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube is just table stakes. Taco Bell goes deeper with a 24/7 social media team that replies to fans, leverages trending topics, retweets influencers and directly engages superfans. In an effort to build a lifelong bond with top influencers, Taco Bell even decided to play on Beyonce’s work and Put a Ring on It.

5.    Brevity is the essence of wit: In digital, content is playing an ever increasing role in how people are engaging with brands. Some brands tend to lean towards longer form content in social and beyond, hoping to gain traction with a stronger message. Taco Bell, knowing and understanding its audience, keeps it short. On Twitter, where the shorter and more poignant you can make the Tweet the better it works, Taco Bell’s engagement rates are through the roof. Taco Bell knows and targets their fraternity-centric millennial based on what appeals to them and sticks with it effectively.

In the wake of this year’s success, the QSR industry and marketers-at-large will no doubt be watching to see what Taco Bell will deliver in 2013.  As Taco Bell plans and tests “what’s next” product-wise, we can count on the fact that their marketing teams are pressing to find new ways to reach their biggest fans and core audiences by staying ahead of the marketing curve as well as deepen the impact of their media mix.