Taco Bell CMO David Ovens Sees Hot Opportunities

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?
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?
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.
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.
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.