Taco Bell Is Trying To Change The Fast Food Game

Removing artificial ingredients from their menu is a big deal, but how does it impact their brand?

In May 2015, fast-food behemoth Taco bell announced that by the end of 2015 they will be removing the artificial ingredients from their menu. Artificial flavors, artificial coloring, high fructose corn syrup and palm oil will soon be gone. This comes as massive news in the fight towards better eating habits nationwide. This is undoubtedly cool news to hear, but, for Taco Bell, it comes at a cost. The change in the menu also means a slight change in what their brand stands for and the values they aim to deliver.

There are actually some tricky implications for Taco Bell going forward and there are some interesting challenges that their brand will have to work through in order to grow. Whenever a company makes changes to their brand, they are risking a lot. Changing the formula for what has worked in the past is incredibly risky when millions of dollars are on the line.

That said, Taco Bell is extremely well positioned and is one of the few brands that has both the scale and core-audience required to pull a move like this off. If Taco Bell can manage to execute well, then they have a real chance to steal some precious market share by changing the game and forcing competitors to play catch-up.

Why Does Their Brand Matter?

A company’s “brand” is no longer just a logo or brochure design. It is not the colors the choose to paint their buildings with. A brand is so much more important than just that.

A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer.

Everything that a company does or puts out into the world affects their brand. The goal as a marketer (and, in this case, Taco Bell’s goal) is to create a stronger brand and you do this by giving customers as much value as possible.

This is why Taco Bell is making the move towards a healthier menu. They believe that the trade-offs made by making a healthier menu (increased R&D costs, maybe increased overhead, whatever the trade-offs may be) will result in a better experience for their customer and, because of that, more brand value. In the long run, whichever company is giving the most people the most value wins. It’s not crazy complicated to understand, but it is complicated to pull off.

Will Customers Care?

On paper this seems like a no-brainer; a healthier option is going to provide more value. If Taco Bell is a healthier option, than the purchasing decision for a fast-food eater becomes a slightly different proposition. Instead of “I am hungry, should I get tacos or burgers? They are both the same price.” The new purchasing decision would now become, “Do I want tacos or burgers? And oh yeah! Tacos are a little healthier.” It is a subtle difference, but when we are talking millions of customers and millions dollars, a subtle difference can have a massive effect on a company’s bottom line.

The problem is, giving value isn’t that simple. Taco Bell doesn’t get to “choose” what people will find valuable. Customers dictate what is valuable and what is not. So, the dilemma for Taco Bell becomes, “Do our customers care about healthier menu items, and will they find value in that? Or are we just wasting our time?”

This isn’t Taco Bell’s first try at this “healthy” thing. They have been trying to take advantage of this health craze for a while now. In the past, they have tested and implemented both the “Fresco” and “Cantina” menu series, which were both aimed towards a more health oriented consumer.

There is a small, but significant, difference with those trials. They were additions to the menu and not a complete overhaul. If you didn’t want to, you could just not order those items and you would be unaffected. If you were a regular Taco Bell customer, this wouldn’t affect your Taco Bell experience at all. This wouldn’t do much in affecting your perception of the Taco Bell brand.

With removing the artificial flavors from 95 percent of the menu items they have changed the entirety of their menu. Not as an addition, but instead as an overhaul. This is where the risk comes in.

Taco Bell has risked pushing “healthy” onto customers who previously might not have valued and cared about healthy eating. If their customer base doesn’t value this new health move, then it risks everything they have built. If this healthier menu comes at the cost of increased menu prices, then they would be asking their customers to pay more for something they don’t value. This is an absolute train wreck from a marketer’s perspective. In a world where there are so many options (especially fast food options), you don’t want to give a single customer a reason to change their mind and eat somewhere else. Making them pay more for less value is certainly flirting with disaster.

It might not seem like it, but the fast food industry has been slow to adapt with the health trend in part because of this exact reason. They are afraid that their customers just don’t value this sort of thing, especially when it comes with increased menu prices.

A more expensive fast food option doesn’t solve the “I need cheap food problem” for customers.

This Is Where The Marketing Comes In

Taco Bell wants to minimize their risk as much as possible. They want to do everything they can to make sure this strategic move works out in their favor. They need to make sure that their customers want this problem solved in the first place. This is a big challenge Taco Bell is faced with. They need to ask themselves “How can we make people want us to solve this problem? How can we make people care about healthier food alternatives?” These are the questions that their marketing team has to find an answer to.

Taco Bell gets it though. They understand what they are up against and they are well positioned to pull off this move all while keeping the strength of the brand intact. There are two key things Taco Bell has working in their favor.

The first thing working in Taco Bell’s favor is this “healthy eating” craze that has been sweeping the nation these past few years. What started as a small West Coast trend has turned into a country wide phenomenon. We all see it everyday, as it has grown hand-in-hand with the hardcore workout craze littered throughout all of our Instagram feeds.

That said, this doesn’t automatically mean that Taco Bell’s customers have any interest in being a part of the trend. But, it does mean that it shouldn’t be too difficult to convert people towards this way of thinking. Their brand is working side by side with a popular nationwide trend. That will always be a good thing.

Second, Taco Bell has a magnificent customer base and the most loyal and energetic segment of that customer base is their younger demographic. Taco Bell is an incredibly popular choice for late-night food across the country. That late-night crowd is young, social and mostly still in school, which make them the perfect group to try and market towards.

This hive (social, young, in-school) of customers is one of the best hives a marketer could work with. High-schoolers and college kids are hanging out in social circles during most of the hours of the day. Word of mouth works incredibly fast in these circles, because messages spread like wildfire wherever people are social and active. This creates more chances for them to talk about Taco Bell ☺.

Taco Bell has to make their customers want to eat healthier and they have two great aspects working in their favor: an incredibly popular trend and an incredibly social group of customers who are always coming back to eat.

Now that we have looked at their brand and the context for their marketing, let’s look at ways Taco Bell can execute their campaign.

Brainstorming An Advertising Campaign

Remember the Domino’s Pizza Turnaround campaign? If not, check out this video. I think it might be the perfect style of campaign for Taco Bell to use.

The style of advertisement only works when the company behind the campaign is being authentic. Domino’s told the world a story that asked people to trust them one last time and then they promised to deliver. Luckily for them, their sauce recipe was massively improved and they delivered on their promise.

When companies try to sell people a “we have changed for the better” message, audiences are very skeptical to give their trust. The only way it works is when the brand has actually changed for the better. If you don’t truthfully deliver on your promise, customers will not come back for more.

That is why this style of marketing campaign would work so well for Taco Bell. They are actually making healthy changes to the menu. They will deliver for their audience and should make sure to have their marketing efforts take advantage of that.

Taco Bell needs to speak in a voice that their loyal hive recognizes and deliver a story with a message something like “Our food hasn’t been good enough. We have always been proud of our flavors, but we wanted to do more for our customers, for you. We were sick of practicing the same old habits that every other fast food joint uses in the production of food. You deserve better and after years of testing, we are finally about to deliver that for you. Let us know what you think.”

A message like this will resonate with the loyal customers in that social hive.

Taco Bell could commission an Ivy League school to conduct an official study on the health implications of artificial ingredients amongst fast food chains. They could make comparisons of new ingredients versus their old ingredients and put that information out in the public. They should place their campaign ads in environments where that social, young, and loyal customer base of theirs will be hanging out.

They should put an emphasis on putting out stories and messages about the changes. They should focus on getting people to care through any avenues possible, including places like social media.

Taco Bell already has a strong social media presence. They are one craftiest brands on Snapchat and have been thoughtful in choosing which platforms to have a presence on. Snapchat makes a ton of sense for them because the demographics of Snapchat users (~70% of their users being under 25 years of age) perfectly align with Taco Bell’s target audience.

Taco Bell is one of the best examples of how to use Snapchat effectively. They are pros at this stuff.

If they wanted to be really progressive, Taco Bell could reach out to some up-and-coming Snapchat influences and together create content for the new healthy menu. Maybe have an influencer visit the Taco Bell think tank, or do some “faux investigative reporting” at the Taco Bell HQ. They could create stories centered around “before and after” pictures for items on the menu.

The point is, they need to be telling a new healthy story to their audience. They need to tell a story about how the game is different now and how healthy eating is something that they (customers) have deserved all along.

The goal is to make people care about eating healthier. If Taco Bell can first convince that young, social, and Taco Bell-loving hive that healthy is important, then that group will go out and spread the message for them. That is when word-of-mouth marketing is at its best. The Domino’s Pizza Turnaround campaign showed Taco Bell the route to success when it comes to using this style of campaign, and it would make a ton of sense for Taco Bell to use it. If they can sprinkle in a Snapchat influencer or two to help spread the story, then Taco Bell might just have something really powerful on their hands.

What This Means Going Forward

If Taco Bell can execute all of this smoothly (which I have a lot of confidence in them doing), then not only will their brand be more valuable, but they will also be hindering the competition. The healthy trend will only grow and it will force McDonalds, Burger King and others to adapt and catch up. It shouldn’t take those big-wigs too long to catch-up, but every day it takes them is another day that Taco Bell is selling healthier options to people who want them. On the corporate business battlefield of profits and bottom-lines, any edge might just be the edge that wins that war and secures your company a long-term place in the market.

As for the rest of us this is awesome news. Healthier eating options are always a good thing. You are telling me that I won’t have to feel guilty about filling myself with tacos on an early Sunday morning? Niiiiiiiiice!

I write stories like this on Medium because branding and W.O.M. marketing are incredibly interesting to me. If you find them interesting as well, feel free to get in touch with me and we can chat. Thanks for reading☺.