Taco Bell's Incoming CEO Sean Tresvant Talks Disruption and Leadership

On brand ethos and how he's preparing to step up in January at Brandweek

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Taco Bell’s incoming chief executive Sean Tresvant has a vision for the role once he steps up next year. He sat down at Brandweek to outline his focus on leadership while recognizing that it’ll be “a very different job” to the one he currently holds within the fast food restaurant chain.

Speaking to Brittaney Kiefer, Europe creativity editor for Adweek, Tresvant also discussed some of the attention-catching marketing initiatives he has overseen in the role of global chief brand and strategy officer at Taco Bell, which he joined after almost 17 years at Nike at the end of 2021.

A history of disruption

Tresvant recounted Taco Bell’s history of disruption in the quick service restaurant sector by being “different,” something he says continues to be true 61 years after opening its first restaurant. It has now grown to more than 7,000 locations across the U.S. and to over 1,000 internationally as Tresvant has taken its “brand magic” around the world.

“It always starts with the consumer, and we are going to sell to everybody—but we want to speak to someone, and that someone is what we call the cultural rebel,” he outlined. “So for us, it’s really being sharp on our voice, both in the U.S. and internationally. But it really starts with the consumer and helping them understand what the brand is all about.”

To achieve this aim wherever the brand operates comes down to being consistent in its approach but honing the message for local markets, he continued. Taco Bell has always used humor in its ads and partnerships with celebrities from MC Hammer and Shaquille O’Neal in the ’90s through to more recent collabs with the likes of Doja Cat, LeBron James and Devante Adams.

“What we want to do is not the status quo. Not to do what the other brands are doing, but how do we really stay authentic to our consumers and be different than what other people aren’t doing?” Tresvant added.

That is a brand ethos that crosses into Taco Bell’s use of social media, working with major stars as well as micro influencers to share its marketing messages and deals. A campaign with TikTok micro influencers from June about zero delivery charges led to the brand’s highest engagement yet on the platform, he revealed, highlighting the power of collaborating with the right creators, no matter what their audience reach may be.

@iamkendraluster 💰 THIS WEEKEND @tacobell 🌮 is offering a $0 DELIVERY FEE for anyone who has the FREE Taco Bell mobile app!!! Enjoy!!! You’re welcome lol!!! 😁 ➡️ LINK IN BIO!!! ⬅️ #TacoBell #0DeliveryFee 🤑 #ThisWeekendONLY #TacoBellPartner #greenscreen #fyp #KendraLuster ♬ original sound – Kendra Luster

He also highlighted how successful those messages can be by not trying to control those creators, citing Doja Cat’s criticism on Twitter of the brand for dropping Mexican Pizza from its menu, which blew up and led to it being brought back.

“That’s why I think that campaign was so successful, because we didn’t put her in a box. We let Doja be Doja, which is very authentic. And then obviously, consumers responded and reacted to authentic content versus us writing lines for Doja about what to say.”

In turn, the brand aims to respond and have conversations with its fans through social media, which led to the “Brought Back” campaign, allowing fans to suggest other old menu items they wanted to return.

Stepping up to CEO

Speaking about preparing to take on the role of CEO on Jan. 1, following the planned retirement of Mark King at the end of this year, Tresvant spoke about his view on leadership and how he aims to take the Yum! Brands-owned restaurant chain forward.

“Leadership and being able to lead people, coach people, mentor people, separates companies from good to great, from great to extraordinary. And so, my platform, and Taco Bell, even when I came in as chief brand officer, the idea is to let’s be able to create great leadership within a certain company because I do think it changes the trajectory of companies,” he explained.

He also spoke about the people within the brand and leading it holistically, while also aiming to grow Taco Bell internationally, something he had already begun to focus on in his current position. Also on his agenda is enhancing the brand’s relationship with franchisees.

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