Dining Out Magazine

Consumers Like Brands That Look Alive. Here’s How to at Least Fake the Appearance of Life.

By Keewood @sellingeating

Taco Bell Knows How To Keep Us Interested...On today’s occasion of Taco Bell getting a certain demographic all whipped up about an enlarged junk food snack chip-branded taco, and doing a great job of it, I thought I’d reprint an op-ed I wrote last summer (in which I say nice things about the Bell’s marketing).

Lights On, Somebody Home

(as published in Food+Drink magazine, Summer 2012)

You might not feel it on a Saturday morning when your restaurant is full of unshaven dads with unruly kids and unshowered teens shambling in just before the cutoff to order a pile of health-defying breakfast food. But your customers are smart – incredibly smart, in fact.

As we evolve, we humans develop abilities to parse the motivations of the companies we encounter. We need this ability to survive as consumers. We all recognize a company coasting on past success, desperate to sell something subpar just to keep the cash flowing. And we all recognize a company on the upswing of fortune’s wheel, doing everything right.

We prefer that last one.

Here are some of the signs you might try giving your customers to give them the sense that you’re firing on all cylinders, riding high or whatever metaphor you like best.

Me, I like the notion of “lights on” in an otherwise darkened office building at night. A light on says: “Working hard, having good ideas.” To me. Oh, whatever.


In college, I thought I wanted to work at a fast-food joint because I’d been on the customer side of the counter so many times watching the crew hustle. They were enjoying not only each other’s company, but just that delight people feel when they’ve mastered something and they know what they’re doing and they’re doing it well.

Then I got a job at a McDonald’s with a tyrannical, mocking manager who had everybody nervous and paranoid all the time, and none of us ever gave the customers anything more than a “please don’t complain” vibe. I quit after a couple months.

What can you do to facilitate that bustling feeling? One way to help, especially if you’re removed from the daily operations of the restaurant, is to provide servers with specific talking points and materials to help them have fun with customers. But it can’t be solved with just materials.

It starts with a feeling. And it has been my experience – more than just the McDonald’s gig – that the right feeling starts with the manager. An energetic, camp counselor-type manager creates a fun restaurant that fires on all cylinders. A worried, serious manager often overlords a dull crew who makes the restaurant seem like Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks at the Diner,” even during the day.


New products are like painkillers after your back operation: Thank God they’re available, but be careful you don’t get addicted.

It’s a skill, having the discipline to develop a mix of Celebrating What Made You Great – which is easy to lose sight of when you’re constantly innovating – and surprising people with products they didn’t know they wanted. I think of the guys in the pits at car races, trying to get the combination of oxygen and gas just perfect. It’s hard.

I think Taco Bell is killing it right now, though, don’t you?

I’m thinking beyond the home-run Locos Tacos Doritos thing, which I think is the current Five-Dollar Footlong. You know every now and then how a restaurant has such huge success with something that everybody suddenly starts kicking themselves that they didn’t think of it and suddenly every meeting is about “Where’s our Chic-Fil-A cows?” “We need a Five-Dollar-Footlong promo!” or whatever? Right now, it’s Locos Tacos.

Now they’ve introduced this Cantina Bell menu to keep themselves from just wallowing in indulgent new products. Let’s be honest – there’s just something fun and funny about deciding to order a taco where “what the hell, the shell is just a big junk food snack chip.”

In case you haven’t been keeping up, Taco Bell hired Lorena Garcia of “Top Chef Masters” and “The Biggest Loser” to come up with interesting entrees – “let’s call them entrees!” – that are sort of the opposite of gut-fill. Foodies might now reconsider the Bell.

Yet I still know that if I find 93¢ in the ashtray of my Ford Fiesta, I’m as welcomed as ever to come have refried beans smeared on a burrito shell.


I’ll be damned. Look at me nominating Taco Bell for first place in this category, too. As of this writing, they’re also killing it here, too.

Included in No. 3 is advertising and marketing, of course. But take a look at your desk calendar – wait, you don’t still have a “desk calendar,” do you? Uh-oh. – and then ask yourself: What do “advertising” and “marketing” even mean these days?

Taco Bell got huge Facebook, Twitter and blogosphere props recently for snarking back at a snarky Old Spice tweet. Old Spice (a rowdy brand) made fun of their fire sauce not being made with any real fire (heh, heh), and Taco Bell quickly shot back: “@OldSpice Is your deodorant made with really old spices?” THAT, FOLKS, IS HOW COMPANIES DO SOCIAL MEDIA RIGHT.

Fast. Branded. In a human voice, not a “corporate” voice.

Of course, Old Spice fired the first shot and Taco Bell is known for having a little attitude, so that worked out nicer for them than most restaurants can depend on.

But it isn’t just that: Google “Taco Bell” and you’ll find a video where they took lemons and avocados, and formed them into actual QR codes in a photo studio. Then, if you stop the frame and pull up the QR code app on your smartphone, it takes you to a website with Lorena Garcia’s recipes for Cantina Bell items. BOOM.

Then, keep that Google tab open and look up their PR stunt where Taco Bell helicoptered a food truck into a remote Alaskan town “with no roads leading to it.” (A Twitter compatriot and I agreed there are questions raised here that I’m almost curious enough to pursue much deeper – this “no roads” thing). It’s a long but charming story.

And look: I haven’t even mentioned their ads. And I’m not sure I even like their ads.

Overall, they’re not doing just what I assume they’d usually do. They’re doing inventive, interesting stuff – which the Internet rewards by being interested in.

By God: It looks like the lights are on up in the Taco Bell tower.

(as published in Food+Drink magazine, Summer 2012)

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