Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Thinking Outside the (Marketing) Bun

According to statistics by Digital MarketingRamblings, there are 1.23 billion users on Facebook, 243 million active users on Twitter, 200 million users on Instagram, and 40 million users on Vine. Though these numbers are high, they are not unexpected. The world is becoming seemingly overrun by social media, a fact that has greatly influenced marketing in large companies.

Just as celebrities can interact with fans over the Internet, companies can create personal relationships with their customers. Arguably, no company has done this better and on as large a scale as Taco Bell. In a World Wide Web of literally billions of things vying for users’ attention, Taco Bell has managed to capture the hearts of millennial Internet users using a marketing plan creatively crafted for social media.

            By the numbers, Taco Bell’s social media does very well. Its Facebook page has nearly 10.5 million likes, and the company’s official account has 
5 million followers on Twitter, 366,444 followers on Instagram, and 105,700 followers on Vine. High numbers aren’t what make Taco Bell’s social media strategy creative, though. The creativity lies in the way the company has responded to the social media trend and the way that customers have responded to the company.

Since its conception, social media has been a means of breaking down barriers between people. With the emergence of Twitter, Instagram, and Vine, fans can be a part of their favorite celebrities’ lives. For example, anyone with an Instagram account can comment on what Kim Kardashian had for breakfast or what they think about Miley Cyrus’ latest outfit. The social media team at Taco Bell has made Taco Bell a celebrity. It has surpassed the status of just a company, which is an abstract concept for the Internet. Instead, “Taco Bell” has become fans’ “bae” (a millennial term for “before all else” or a boyfriend or girlfriend) and even a few lucky fans’ Valentine. Taco Bell will tweet back at fans with fun messages. For example:

On all of its social media accounts, Taco Bell receives thousands of messages and mentions. There are interns, such as Liz Arcury, who writes about the experience in a blog, who are specifically hired to filter through the countless messages from fans of the franchise. These interns, as well as the marketing team, pour over analytics from not only the four social media sites mentioned above, but also other sites such as Tumblr and Pinterest. Taco Bell is leaving no Internet stone unturned in its quest to reach its target customers.

One reason Taco Bell’s social media campaigns are so successful, according to, is that they have a very specific target demographic. The typical Taco Bell customer is age 18-34, so all of the online content is directed at young people, mainly millennials. They do this by using language and trends that millennials will understand and appreciate, such as slang and hashtags. The company ensures that it stays in tune to the latest trends by hiring teams of young people to run the social media campaigns. 

         “Our method is hiring Millennial-minded individuals because they live and breathe social media,” Head of Social Media Nick Tran said in an interview with “We are staying on the forefront of trends…then everyone in the organization contributes to this sort of “think tank” or social center of excellence.”

         Besides targeting mostly millennials, Taco Bell specifically targets celebrities to advertise for the 
company. They did this with model Chrissy Teigen. She announced her engagement over Twitter, so Taco Bell sent her custom Taco Bell rings with a hand-written letter. She Instagrammed a picture of the gift and the note with a comment mentioning the company. Teigen is not the only celebrity to receive a gift and a note. Taco Bell has done this many times, and when celebrities receive a gift, they normally upload a picture of it with a thank you comment. Every time celebrities do this, Taco Bell gets free advertising, and depending on the creativity of the gift, they could win extra attention from that celebrity’s fans. 

         Gifts are not reserved for celebrities, though. Taco Bell will send fans shirts, posters, and other merchandise. Like celebrities, these fans will post pictures and videos with the gifts on their social media accounts. This direct interaction with customers is bolstered by the use of hashtags and video contests. Followers will use their own creativity in pursuit of that ever-coveted retweet, regram, or revine that would give their personal accounts exposure on Taco Bell’s official account.

         Collaboration with customers is one element of the three-pronged approach Taco Bell uses to produce online content. The social media teams create their own content, they gather content from other users online, and co-create content with those other users. Tran described this process in his interview with CMO:
“Like many brands, we dabbled early in social media and used it as mostly an announcement board for other things going on at the company. We were taking content and commercials from other channels and repurposing them for social media. Today, we create, curate, and co-create content specifically for our social channels.”
Taco Bell’s social media policy is teeming with many of the elements of creativity discussed in the readings, most specifically Bennis’ article titled “A Computer with a Rebel Heart.” In the article, Bennis cites a Steve Jobs interview where Jobs, who is arguably the father of computer creativity, said, “Creativity is just connecting things. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

This was what the Taco Bell social media team did. It saw that social media was being used for connecting to customers and saw the future in that area of marketing. Taco Bell was not the first company to use social media, just as Apple was not the first company to make home computers. Instead, Taco Bell and Apple saw what was happening in the field and ran with it. Taco Bell went above and beyond simply presenting information to customers. They interact with customers and have created a mutual friendship with fans of the franchise.

Jobs’ description of creativity that is embodied by Taco Bell’s social media campaign is mirrored in Steenburgh et al’s article about insight. The article defines insight as, “when a new interpretation of a situation or the solution to a problem suddenly springs into conscious awareness.” Though it is unclear how Taco Bell began their personal-level communications with customers, it is a true statement that someone at the company realized that there was a single demographic that made up a considerable majority of its business. This insight allowed them to recognize that this demographic needed a marketing plan made especially to cater to it. This insight was the impetus to use social media as a platform for advertising.

Once the idea was born, the company took the investment approach to creativity, as described in Lubart and Sternberg’s article “An Investment Approach to Creativity: Theory and Data.” Because Taco Bell is a business and the social media marketing is aimed at raising revenue for the franchise, the investment is a monetary one. Lubart and Sternberg describe this part of the investment theory as, “[pointing] out the importance of concentrating the evaluation of creativity on observable products. In the evaluation of financial investments, the measurement of performance is tangible—monetary gain.” For Taco Bell, the monetary gains from its creative marketing endeavors are quite tangible. The company invested in hiring team members and was rewarded by posting an increase in sales in 2012 that was double that of rival fast food chain McDonalds.
Monetary gains go hand in hand with Collins and Amabile’s theory of extrinsic motivation. Though the social media team members may find personal satisfaction from interacting with customers, the ultimate goal is increased sales. The interns and social media experts are businesspeople, after all, and at the end of the day, the most important thing is the profit. This is an external reward that drives team members to maintain a certain level of creativity with their posts and promotions. If the profits start to dip, the company will move on, looking for bigger and better ways to reach customers. 
Taco Bell also is representative of Howard Gardner’s triangle of creativity described in Creating Minds, which includes the creative person, other people surrounding the creative person, and the work itself. The people who work for Taco Bell’s social media team comprise the “creative person” that creates the product. The “other people” that make the second corner of the triangle are the customers that interact with the company through social media. The third corner of the triangle is the product itself. Gardner’s triangle is paralleled by Taco Bell’s three-pronged approach to social media of creating, curating, and co-creating. 

         So, if you are a millennial, even if you aren’t a fan of underpriced Americanized Mexican food, you can appreciate the way Taco Bell has grabbed the reigns of social media and driven it into the future. Live mas.


  1. It's really intriguing to see a company market itself on such a personal level. I hate to agree with the legislation that boldly proclaimed corporations were people, but I'll make an exception for T-bell since it seems like such a nice person. This is clearly a case of a company that has followed its target demographics changing needs and met them. Good for you, Taco Bell.

  2. This is amazing. Most companies, especially in the food industry, are INCREDIBLY boring and dull over social networking. All they really do usually is advertise for specials and swamp your news feeds with information that you immediately ignore. Meanwhile, Taco Bell makes itself psychologically salient by making their social networking so likeable. By being witty and not merely advertising deals, they make themselves accessible to others. Not to mention, they are incredibly creative! Those Taco Bell rings and wedding gift are hysterical, also awesome examples of their originality.

    Now I want Taco Bell.


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