What Can Be Learned from Taco Bell’s Marketing?


Up until recently, Taco Bell’s marketing efforts were rather rocky. The popular food chain pushed the mantras of “food-as-fuel” and, of course, “Think outside the bun.” Despite many consumers’ addiction to bean burritos, these tactics did not work. What’s more, the company was hit in 2011 with a lawsuit alleging that Taco Bell’s “seasoned beef” did not consist of meat.

All these issues combined resulted in three years of flat sales and a 1.4 percent sales decline at the end of 2011.

“We were letting [the brand] become too much of a punchline,” said Brian Niccol, Taco Bell President.

However, Taco Bell has turned itself around and credits a variety of factors including social media. In fact, the company is making such an impression that it was named Ad Age’s 2013 Marketer of the Year.

The company created a new tagline of “Live mas,” introduced the Cantina menu in conjunction with Chef Lorena Garcia to promote healthier options, and is testing a Power Protein menu and breakfast.

The biggest driver for the company’s 8 percent increase in same-store sales in 2012 was the launch of Doritos Locos Tacos. Although it took three years to produce the right product, Taco Bell sold 100 million Doritos Locos Tacos within its first 10 weeks. The jackpot idea continues to grow as Taco Bell introduced the Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos earlier this year along with the Fiery Doritos Locos Tacos just last month. As long as Doritos are around, could the possibilities for Taco Bell be endless?

On the backend, the company also refined its marketing message. Taco Bell now strives to reach the “millennial” customer. Social media really became critical with this shift as well since the company did not simply run to Facebook and Twitter. Instead, they utilized social networks such as Vine, Pheed, and Snapchat first. This, in addition to offering exclusive peeks and deals to social media followers, only helped Taco Bell connect with the target market it wanted to reach.

The Good News

On the positive side, it’s always good to see a brand turn itself around. We’ve seen companies such as GM and Domino’s reinvent themselves after many attempts. Apple, of course, is probably the best example of successful reinvention after Steve Jobs returned to the company and made it not only into an extremely valuable brand, but also developed a sense of status to accompany it.

So, the good news is that it is possible to turn a brand around. It just takes a lot of hard work and creativity.

The (Potentially) Bad News

Although the story doesn’t always end badly, failure is possible. This is why it is of the utmost importance to think carefully about new brand messaging. There are, of course, cases when planning could not have predicted the outcome, such as with the BP oil spill. But, creativity and advertising cost money. Beyond this, it could cost a brand its image, which is sometimes irreparable.

As for Taco Bell, it seems to be putting its eggs in the Doritos basket. The question is, is it sustainable?

While this remains to be seen, other brands need to strategically approach new branding and messaging. Although innovation is good, creating a fad is not. No matter how much it may seem like it at times, marketing is not a game. Learn this lesson early before you harm your brand.

Abby Johnson

Abby brings a unique perspective to the mix because her background consists of both traditional broadcast and public relations to now the world of online. She is very skilled at looking at the big picture and understanding how to get the message across to a particular audience.

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