Taco Bell is a popular American chain of Tex-Mex fast-food restaurants based in California. It was founded in 1962 by Glenn Bell, went public in 1970 with 325 restaurants, and now has an international presence of over 5,000 restaurants. What is intriguing about this company is the brand strategy change it has undergone in recent years, “positioning the brand for Millennials.” Taco Bell has been effective in reaching their target demographic through innovate methods, becoming a leading force in the fast-food industry.

So Who Are Millennials?

While many people may argue about what time period Millennials (also known as Generation Y) were born in, they’re typically considered to be 18-34 year olds today. This means many of us are in college, or in that first job, and just starting our adult lives, which in turn means, we’re probably on a budget. The fact that we were born in a world where computers already existed, means we grew up to witness the intense growth of technology that has happened; we grew with technology…so we’re definitely tech-savvy. In fact, study shows that our generation seems to be most in-tune with social media sites and doesn’t seem to find sleeping with our cell phones weird at all.

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Based on this study, our generation is not just tech-savvy (that’s Generation X); we pretty much rule the tech-sphere. We value music and pop culture way more than our predecessors, tend to be liberal, think we’re smarter, and think our clothes are pretty stylish.

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Evan Shapiro, president of Pivot, a television network targeting millennials, stated:  “Where other people may see navel gazing, entitled narcissists, we have a hero generation ready to take on the challenges that are present in the world, challenges they didn’t create.” So hey, we’re also a hero generation, which probably means we’re likely to help out in whatever way we can, whether it’s clicking on an online petition, donating money/food/clothes, or watching what we eat/do in order to better help the environment, animals, and ourselves. We just make sure we’re having fun doing it.

How Does Taco Bell Use This?

They pretty much use this in everything they do. Their social media presence is pretty ridiculous. It’s gotten to the point where they’ve pretty much created an identity or personality for themselves via the internet. In Celia Lury’s “Consumer Culture,” she states that branding involves “a re-intermediation in the development of brand logos, identities, or personalities to speak for the product, to act as a guarantor of quality” (139). She goes on to quote (143):

‘Many of the brands that are emerging today [late 90s] are succeeding because they do not focus on a specific product, but instead communicate clear values which can extend across a plethora of different products and services’ (Hart, 1998: 208)

Social Media Platforms

With social media, it’s easier than ever for companies to communicate and speak for their brand, and Taco Bell has taken full advantage of it. Considering their target demographic makes up a good chunk of the social media population, such platforms are ideal for the brand to express itself. However, any company or brand could create a social media account and try to reach and engage their consumers. What makes brands like Taco Bell different is that they take ‘speaking for their product’ to a whole other level. They’re not just speaking for a product of theirs, they’re speaking as an entity; an entity with a Millennial identity. They are not just speaking to their target demographic, they are their target demographic. Anywhere millennials are, they are too.

Buzzfeed:

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Twitter:

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Facebook:

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Instagram:

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Screenshot taken by author.

Vine:

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Songza:

YouTube:

Yes, even Snapchat:

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Not only does Taco Bell have a presence on these platforms, but they’re using it the right way. Not only are they promoting their product, they’re promoting it in a way where it’s relevant to their consumer, as can be seen by several of these screenshots.  The Buzzfeed “10 Childhood Obsessions That We Never Got Over” article appeals to nostalgia all 90s kids seem to have. They participate in the hashtag trends, as can be seen by #WomanCrushWednesday Instagram post featuring Jenna Marbles, a YouTube personality popular among millennials. The Vine video is promoting their Let’s End Hunger campaign, which appeals to the millennial’s ‘hero’ complex. The fact that they have a playlist on Songza shows they understand how much millennials value music (and let’s not forget about their Feed the Beat program).

Consumer Feedback

So clearly Taco Bell knows what to do to appeal to millennials, but how do millennials feel about it?

Screenshot taken by author.

Screenshot taken by author.

Screenshot taken by author.

Screenshot taken by author.

Screenshot taken by author.

Consumer Relations

Seems like it’s working. On top of engaging with consumers over social media, Taco Bell is also known to take that interaction a step further:

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Screenshot taken by author.

Screenshot taken by author.
“Every day, we get tweets and Facebook posts from consumers asking us to marry them,” says Jozlynn Rush, social-media community manager at Taco Bell, who created the unusual promo. “Our consumers are passionately in love with the brand and want to be in a relationship with us.” [http://goo.gl/i77K2I]

And I’m sure some of you stumbled upon this BuzzFeed article “The 28 Funniest Notes Written By Kids In 2013” earlier this month. Taco Bell had a response:

Screenshot taken by author.

Screenshot taken by author.

According to Lury, Doug Holt believed that a brand was distinguished from a product based on “a history of meaning that is ‘filled with customer experiences,'” (149). She goes on to quote him:

“A brand emerges as various ‘authors’ tell stories that involve the brand. Four primary types  of authors are involved: companies, the culture industries, intermediaries (such as critics and retail salespeople), and customers (particularly when they form communities). The relative influence of these authors varies over product categories.”

It’s clear that Taco Bell strives to engage its customers and give them the best possible experience they can, and they know that this is what will help turn them into some kind of iconic brand. A brand people will like because of what they symbolize, for their identity value. Just as Disney World associates itself with ‘magic,’ I think it’s safe to say Taco Bell associates itself with ‘fun‘ and just having a great time (with [good] food).

In Sarah Banet-Weiser’s Authentic: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture, she states:

“We want to believe—indeed, I argue that we need to believe—that there are spaces in our lives driven by genuine affect and emotions, something outside of mere consumer culture, something above the reductiveness of profit margins, the crassness of capital exchange[…] This transformation of culture of everyday living into brand culture signals a broader shift, from “authentic” culture to the branding of authenticity. Contemporary brand cultures are so thoroughly imbricated with culture at large that they become indistinguishable from it.” (5)

We are a society driven by the need of authenticity. In a way, authenticity allows us the privilege of trust, which is extremely important in our consumer practices. People are willing to pay a little more to get treated like actual people. Companies are realizing this and so it’s only smart that they start to implement that kind of authenticity into their brand, which is exactly what Taco Bell does. They know millennials want real and authentic behavior, so they keep it as real as they can.

In the Buzzfeed article, “A Day In The Life Of The Social Media Team At Taco Bell,” the writes

“When asked about why they liked Taco Bell, the boys said because Taco Bell talked back to them. They all felt a personal connection to the brand because TB social responded to fans via different channels. Many brands have social sites but they use it as a one way communication vehicle. The social team at TB are truly plugged in having conversations and building relationships.”

Catering to Millennials

As I mentioned before, millennials tend to be a broad group, and while being “hip and edgy,” they also are  known as the “change the world” group filled with environmentalists, vegetarians/vegans,  and the like. How would Taco Bell appeal to this subgroup? Easy; Taco Bell is testing the “Power Protein” menu in Ohio right now. The  “Power Protein,” a kind of cheaper version of their Cantina menu (more on that later), is meant to target the health-minded millennial.

A characteristic I failed to mention about millennials before was that we seemed to be a more diversified group than our predecessors:

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Taking that into consideration, Taco Bell is kind of ideal as their brand is also cross-cultural (American-Mexican food), so they take advantage of that. Their “Live Más” (bilingual for “Live More”) campaign seems to be a real hit.

“This is a bilingual phrase that sums up why this product will be attractive to a young, hip and cross-cultural consumer,” says Ken Muench, SVP of strategic planning at Draftfcb’s Orange County office, which created the campaign. “The brand has moved past the point of the idea of ‘food as fuel.’ Young people in our new multi-cultural landscape don’t see it that way. They look at food as an experience. That’s what the new Taco Bell will provide. And that’s the story we’re telling.”

One of the more popular commercials during last year’s Superbowl was the Taco Bell spot that featured a spanish version of fun.‘s (an alumni of Taco Bell’s Feed the Beat program), “We Are Young,” as the soundtrack.

Jumping on the band-wagon many other fast-food restaurants seemed to have, Taco Bell is also experimenting with a breakfast menu. As of right now, they are testing in three locations: Fresno, Omaha, and Chattanooga. Some things on the menu include a waffle taco and a variety of breakfast burritos. Now millennials can have Taco Bell at any time of the day without having to switch breakfast for lunch.

They also fixed their value menu a bit for the budget-conscious consumer to include dollar items. That’ll definitely appeal to millennials, of many who are college kids on a budget.

New menus aren’t all they’re coming up with. Taco Bell has also been introducing new products to their menu, with such great reception from millennials, that it led to spin-off products. In 2012, Taco Bell partnered with Frito-Lay to introduce the Doritos Locos Nacho Cheese Tacos, which then led to Cool Ranch flavored Doritos Locos Tacos, as well as Fiery flavored Doritos Locos Tacos. The brand also has a partnership with Pepsi Co. giving way to Mountain Dew Baja, a version of the soft drink exclusively available at Taco Bell. The drink has since spawned into Mountain Dew A.M which is a mixture of original Mountain Dew with Tropicana Orange Juice (also a Pepsi product), as well as a slushie version Mountain Dew Freeze.

Other Moves

Recently, Taco Bell decided to completely eliminate the kid’s meal from their menu; a revolutionary move in the fast-food industry. The reasoning? “Kid’s meals are not part of Taco Bell’s long-term brand strategy and have had an insignificant impact on system sales,” read the press release. You know, along with the fact that “It’s fairly inconsistent for an edgy, twentysomething brand to offer kids meals.” Less spending, and more focus on their target demo? Why not.

So, we know Taco Bell is a millennial brand, but that doesn’t mean they can’t strive for more.  The Cantina menu I mentioned earlier, is meant to be perceived as ‘better quality’ and healthier menu choice. An upscale, a bit pricier menu that could potentially compete with the likes of Chipotle. It seems to be doing well with women and an older demographic and is meeting expectations from the company.

What Caused the Shift?

According to the Taco Bell president, “We were letting [the brand] become too much of a punchline.” Change came in 2011, when Taco Bell was involved in a lawsuit that claimed they were not using real meat. Although they ended the year with a %1.4 sales decline, they were clearly tired of not being taken seriously and released this ad:

Taco Bell keeping it REAL.

2012 brought the introduction to a new era for Taco Bell: Doritos Locos Tacos galore.  The Doritos Tacos brought the brand to an 8% increase (compared to just the %3.3 of fast-food giant McDonald’s).  In Brands: A Critical Perspective, Adam Arvidsson states:

“In the form of ‘brand value’, the dynamics of public communicative interaction have a direct impact on the value of shares traded on financial markets. Consequently the management of public communicative action has become a central element to economic governance (both for marketing and for management, where the concept of the ‘organizational brand’ now plays a central part). Public opinion, affect and sentiment have entered as central parameters in contemporary shareholder oriented corporate governance.” (236)

I believe this statement is backed by Taco Bell’s performance with their Doritos Locos Tacos campaign in conjunction with their experimentation on social media reaching millennials. Not only does it seem like they’re winning with all the approval of their social media stunts and product introductions, but they actually are according to the numbers.

Works Cited

Arvidsson, A. “Brands: A Critical Perspective.” Journal of Consumer Culture 5.2 (2005): 235-258. Print.

Banet-Weiser, Sarah. Authentic TM: Politics and Ambivalence in a Brand Culture. New York: New York UP, 2012. Print.

Lury, Celia. ”Introduction: What is Consumer Culture?” and “Exchanging Things: The Economy and Culture.” Consumer Culture. Polity Press: London, 2011. Print

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