Taco Bell, Ad Age’s Marketer of the Year, was recognized for their brand’s incredible turnaround. In 2011, Taco Bell sales declined by 1.4 percent in part because of a January lawsuit alleging that their beef taco was not really all beef. In 2012, the brand came roaring back with store sales up an astounding 8 percent and the momentum continued in 2013. How did they do it? The answer is threefold: wildly successful product innovation, a radical new brand position around “live mas” (live more), and a creative social media program with a host of tentacles.

The home-run product platform was introduced early in 2012 in the form of the Doritos Locos Tacos; over 100 million were sold in just the first ten weeks, and the brand extensions, Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos and Fiery Doritos Locos Tacos have been winners as well.

The core idea came out of a creative thinking session with Frito-Lay and involved leveraging the Doritos brands with its Mexican lineage, leadership in flavored tortilla chips, energy, personality, customer base, and distinctive taste and texture. The final product took some three years, 45 prototypes, and the joint resources of Frito-Lay and Taco Bell to get it right. The shell had to have the Doritos look, feel and taste, which was not easy, and it had to be made in real quantity.

The success of the Doritos Locos Tacos provided energy and momentum to the Taco Bell brand but was not the only product innovation. The brand also introduced the Cantina menu with healthier ingredients in order to gain relevance to women and other segments that were rebelling from unhealthy fast food fare. The goal was to neutralize the veto effect where one person in the group refuses to patronize a restaurant that lacks a healthy option. Although it made up less than 5 percent of Taco Bell volume, Cantina had an important impact on quality perceptions and increased relevance by appealing to the health-minded.

Sometimes brand perceptions are as much about what you do not do as what you do. The firm jettisoned the children’s products including promotional toys. The kids programs not only sucked up energy and space on the image map, but was also the source of some negative publicity around encouraging kids to eat badly and it diverted attention and resources away from the core millennial audience.

Taco Bell also repositioned the brand, which was being propelled with a product message “think outside the bun” and a TV campaign featuring humor so crude that it stimulated material for comedians. The chain was known for “food for fuel,” a very functional destination.

The advertising links Taco Bell with a “go-for-it” attitude and makes a statement about the high quality of Taco Bell food and how intriguing, tasty, and innovative its menu is now.

The 2012 Super Bowl “Live Mas” advertisement involves 87-year-old Bernie Goldblatt taking friends out on the town in an unforgettable night, showing that people at any age can live it up. The goal was for viewers to associate Taco Bell with memories and experiences to be shared with friends. In a teaser ad, Goldblatt escapes from security and drives his souped-up motorized scooter into a football stadium to do some tricks such as making “donuts” on the field, mowing down water coolers and a tackling dummy.

The new Taco Bell used social media extensively to reach and involve the target market. With 20% of its communication budget, the firm developed a host of social initiatives. One such effort was the “Fishbowl,” a dedicated nerve center where employees interacted with people who mentioned Taco Bell anywhere on social media. In part because of this program, over 2 billion impressions for Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos were obtained before the launch. When Fiery Doritos Locos Taco came out, Taco Bell enlisted a group from VidCon, a conference of YouTubers, to create video content to introduce the new product. Some 65 video ads were selected to run online and be promoted through a variety of social media channels. The efforts worked in part because there are committed and socially active fans of Doritos and the Doritos flavored tacos from Taco Bell.

The result was a brilliant and fresh position communicated through exceptional traditional and social execution—though it is important to remember that it would not have worked without the substance and energy sparked by the once-in-a-decade new product success.

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