Taco Bell's social strategy: Play 'cool friend' to millennials

You may have noticed mentions of Taco Bell popping up in your Twitter feed yesterday. That’s because Thursday morning the fast food brand unveiled its new breakfast menu and the Twitterverse could not contain its excitement. The so-called waffle taco chatter got user-created hashtag #TacoBellBreakfast trending early in the day. Taco Bell has got something going for it that most brands would kill for: genuinely enthusiastic and engaged fans.

But having active, engaged millennial fans means having to keep up with them and the latest digital trends, and according to Taco Bell CMO Chris Brandt, that’s the most challenging part of being a big brand today. Digiday spoke with Brandt about how Taco Bell keeps itself relevant to millennials, what it’s like to be a “cool friend” on social as a brand and Taco Bell’s official stance on its pot-friendly fans. Some excerpts:

Tell me about how Taco Bell prepared on the digital front for a big new product launch like the breakfast menu. 
Digital is in it of itself a big part of the larger marketing campaign, but breakfast has been seven or eight years in the making. We finally think we have the right products at the right price with the right positioning. So then it was about how do you reach your consumers in the best way possible. In the old days, you just did a TV spot and everyone would see it. But with the rise of digital, the rise of mobile, and frankly the rise of the millennial, you have to do a lot more than just TV — it’s still very important, but we want to not just talk at our consumers but talk with them, engage them, and that’s where mobile and digital come in. So along with TV, we have things that we are doing on Vine and Instagram — we are one of the only QSR brands advertising on Instagram.

Were you at all nervous about advertising on Instagram given the user backlash every time there’s a new sponsored post?
There’s 150 million users on Instagram — it’s a force to be reckoned with. We thought it was a great opportunity to take great shots of the lifestyle we are trying to have and how the food fits in that lifestyle, so Instagram was a great platform for that. And also being a brand of firsts is in our DNA. We want to be a progressive brand. As for negative comments, there’s always that risk, and we were a little nervous, but we knew that if we consulted with Instagram folks and did it the right way, that people would accept Taco Bell in that space.

Why did Taco Bell decide to do an AMA as part of the breakfast launch? It seems like reddit is a challenging and risky platform for brands.
I think the AMA, and just social in general, makes a lot of companies uncomfortable, but this is where consumers are. It’s our job to listen to consumers where they are and engage them in the places where they are. So we took the risk. We trust the people we have working for us, and the opportunity to go where it makes most brands nervous is appealing to us. It was a great opportunity for Taco Bell and the president of the company, Brian, to show personality.

The stoner topic came up a lot in the AMA. How does Taco Bell deal with that subject — I’m sure you get it a lot. Is it something you can have fun with as a brand, or is it way off limits?
I think the response that Brian had about that, “We make tacos not laws,” is perfect. I think that sums it up for us.

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How is Taco Bell organized for digital? How hard is it to be agile and innovative as a brand?
We have people that we trust and people that know what the brand is about — people that are pretty cool. They help us have that brand personality and engage people in a way that’s appropriate. We have a great north star as far as our “Live Mas” tagline and once everyone has a good understanding of that, the risk is mitigated. It’s when you don’t have a clear north star, that’s when there’s confusion, and that leads to a lot more anxiety. We also have our social team come in to executive meetings to teach them about the rise of new platforms. You have to have a curious mind and understand where consumers are.

What’s most challenging about staying relevant to millennials?
It’s just how quickly things move today. Fads and trends pop up and go quickly. The world changes quickly: One day you’re great, the next day it can all be over. We have a healthy anxiety about how we keep ourselves at top-of-mind for consumers. It’s really our challenge to build our sales overnight, but our brand over time. One thing we talk about when it comes to social is not just having fans but being the cool friend. So that’s why we’ve done things like the “Rockumentary” where we introduced people to some new bands, and all of the sudden the brand is in places like Rolling Stone. Those are things that cool friends do, and we need to keep challenging ourselves to do those things.

Can brands really be like a friend and have a personality on social? A lot of brands try and a lot of brands fail.
You have to be genuine, authentic and real. If you aren’t any of those things people will call you out immediately. You have to understand yourself as a brand, and you have to have people who understand how to relate to that millennial consumer. It’s when brands overstep their bounds or just copy what others are doing that it becomes corny. You have to build these relationships over time, you can’t just come in and out, and that’s what we’ve done. The success we are having now is the culmination of a lot of work over the past few years.

What digital trends are you keeping an eye on?
Mobile is a big one. We announced earlier this year that we’re working on a mobile ordering app. I think that could be a big game-changer for us. We are constantly monitoring what are the new platforms that are going to grow up. I think we are doing a good job with Snapchat and Vine, but what is the next thing? We have to keep our finger on the pulse of the consumer and see where they are going next and be ready to act.