How Taco Bell stokes the flames of fan love

Getting from “like” to “love” is a challenging proposition, especial in the QSR category. Strong opinions from consumers can be both a blessing and a curse.

Tough feedback is a way for a brand – especially in the hyper-competitive category – to improve. However, the trials and tribulations of McDonald’s, for example, offer a glimpse into the razor-thin line between contributing to culture and simply co-opting it in awkward ways.

For fast food giant Taco Bell, getting fans into the far end of the “love” spectrum is what continues to drive its content and social strategy.

Being open to discourse is something that Taco Bell and Madison + Vine, one of the brand’s agencies, takes very seriously. And the love halo that the brand has seen, according to James Shani, founder of Madison + Vine, starts simply with respecting the channels that consumers are in at any given moment.

"One of the biggest reasons why the love factor has really shined through has to do with understanding the transition from the 30-second spot to social and digital," he said.

Broadcast media messaging, still a core part of the brand’s overall strategy, is most effective when it is inclusive, but it can be shallow and more transactional in nature. Social works best with messaging that is narrow but deep, driven by an original brand personality and a bit of vulnerability.

At the moment, the brand plays on multiple platforms with 10.5 million fans on Facebook, 1.85 million on Twitter and 60,000 on YouTube, each working to bring the love together.

Staying true to the people’s voice, and having fun along the way

To Shani, acting like a people-pleaser just won't fly and is rife with obstacles.

It’s not just understanding and staying true to the voice, brand and identity, he says, “but also having that voice so dialed in and knowing that identity so well that you're not trying to be everything to everyone and you're just staying true to who you are and people resonate with that.”

In comparison to some other brands in the category, Taco Bell keeps these experiences well within its culture and works hard to not try to be something that it isn’t.

“Shy” would not be the most appropriate way to describe the brand. “Wacky” comes to mind, but having some honest fun seems appropriate for Taco Bell.

Stunts, including a fan wedding experience in Vegas, a pop-up VR arcade in New York’s Soho, a speakeasy to promote its Naked Chicken Chalupa and offering reservations at the brand’s test kitchen only add to its presence.

Contests also provide fodder, with last year’s Halloween contest, ironically, won by a staffer at The Drum, encouraging people to dress up as a Taco Bell-themed idea or concept.

Additionally, a Taco Bell bot on Slack proved that the brand is willing to try a few things and see what they can do, so long as its original.

“Sometimes I think a lot of brands do [things] for the wrong reasons,” said Taco Bell's senior manager of social strategy, Ryan Rimsnider. “We could have gone and done drone delivery, but it wouldn't have made sense because it would have been exactly what Chipotle did. They literally just went into a field and dropped a burrito from a drone and called it, ‘drone delivery’ and they got the headline. But for what? We always try to look at it as how are we really progressing an idea that will ultimately lead to great insight, great learning, and then ultimately improve our community.”

Be a fan, be part of the channel

For Taco Bell, love starts by entering each channel as a fan before looking for fans.

"We want to be a contributor to that specific community, whether for Snapchat or Instagram or Twitter, wherever it is. We want to act like a fan first,” said Rimsnider. “We also oftentimes take the creator mentality, where we do have influence and are able to raise the stakes but we want to contribute to the community in unique ways. We don't overtly command the channel with 'Hey, look at me!'

Though the overall social audience is relatively large, YouTube is still somewhat uncharted territory. According to Rimsnider, the channel was, “a huge opportunity and our last unconquered channel if you will.”

Strangely enough, Taco Bell accounted for 2% of the entire food ecosystem on the channel before even digging in, and largely driven by fans who created videos around menu hacks and other Taco Bell-related stories.

“We treated it as a content dumping ground, in all honesty,” conceded Rimsnider. “We put our ads on there, we had some one-off videos here and there, but there was never really a set strategy for it and there was also never really set or dedicated resource.”

Knowing that, the brand set out to be additive to the conversation — not overwhelm it — and put the requisite resources and partners together building a video production engine and letting their partners loose.

One place on the platform where Taco Bell fandom is taking an interesting turn is the brand’s Taco Tales series on YouTube. This original programming is storytelling that’s centered around the brand community, with stories found on the internet and given some creative. Running the gamut from quirky to — well, quirkier — the series, with plenty of winks and nudges, feels on point for the brand and generation everything digital.

Season 1 was a boon, with an uptick in positive sentiment to go along with a close to 1m per episode view average. Reactions were also generally kind and the inclusion of well-known talent like Sam Brown from The Whitest Kids U’ Know, drove and connected the audience even more.

Season 2 of the series begins today and continues the eclectic, very “internet-y” approach featuring a 1994 “prom standoff” wrapped in a 1994 teen comedy series vibe, intended to connect and delight the audience even more while amping up the brand’s presence.

Angry can equal love, too

Another example of working to own the video space a bit more was the quasi-mockumetary video, "Richard Axton and the Beefy Crunch Movement" produced by Madison + Vine. It tells the mostly true but ironically earnest tale of a customer groundswell to put a seasonal item on the permanent Taco Bell menu.

Shani detailed how Taco Bell created a winning campaign out of what could have been a PR nightmare. "Richard Axton was really upset that the Beefy Crunch burrito got removed and went on a rampage on social media. On Facebook, he gained all these followers, I think the Facebook page amassed like 45,000 people who were just furious about it."

What can happen when the people you love are angry? Listening. "Instead of fighting back and going into a PR crisis mode, Taco Bell thought, 'Well, let's embrace this. What is it that our fans and our community are telling us? How can we actually make a meaningful contribution to it?’”

The end result was inviting Axton to Taco Bell headquarters, and the brand brought the Beefy Crunch burrito back for a period of time. Additionally, the halo of goodwill was evident — a brand actually listening and interacting with someone passionate about, in this case, a burrito.

“That could have backfired,” noted Shani. “But the brand was being true to who they are.”

A complex relationship

When popular items disappear from the menu, it is common for angry customers to let their voices be heard on social media. That has been great news for corporate execs because it's an anger rooted in love for the food instead of a tone deaf misreading of community standards, which has damaged so many other brands in the quick-to-judge social sphere. It's an emotional connection and the essence of customer collaboration.

This could likely explain why this Taco Bell team does everything it can to be on the front foot. But it certainly helps that the team is given a level of autonomy to see things through.

“A lot of trust is placed into my group to not mess it up,” said Rimsnider. “If we're going to fail, we fail fast, and keep going. But I don't think there's been too many instances, because my team is so dialed in from a brand guidelines perspective. We have this Taco Bell voice and persona that's been curated and crafted over the last four years just based on some of those key wins, based on our brand tenets of what we stand for as an overall organization.”

Love isn't always easy, but love always wins in the end. It's a two-way street, though. Demanding love rarely works out well for anyone concerned. Taco Bell's winning marketing streak so far is proof that, even in the digital world, the love you take is equal to the love you make.

Doug Zanger

Doug Zanger is the Americas editor for The Drum. He leads the Americas editorial team’s content activity in the growing region. Based in Portland, Oregon, he is committed to sharing the most meaningful stories that benefit the global industry and its people. A Minnesota native, Zanger has covered a wide range of brands, issues and personalities, including Aloe Blacc, Seu Jorge, Wendy Clark, Susan Credle, Dan Wieden, Jeff Goodby and more. Fiercely dedicated to diversity, equality and talent, he has interviewed several women in leadership roles through his Exceptional Women of the World podcast.

All by Doug