Social media began at Taco Bell as a side project. The marketing managers who took it on, in 2007, understood that Facebook would have big implications for the marketing industry. However, like most brands at that time, they used the channel to broadcast about new products and amplify reach of traditional campaigns.
A lot has changed since then.
Social media is now intertwined into the entire organization, with PR, operations, product, and marketing folks all playing a role in the overall social strategy for Taco Bell. Social media operations run very much like a newsroom at a media company, with employees from different business units sitting down to discuss what’s trending online at the time. They review the numbers for previous performances and set publishing plans for the week. Collaboration is key as they vet through the noise and plan a content calendar. That said, some of the content also is real-time, spur-of-the-moment stuff.
Taco Bell’s strategy is working. Last year, for example, the company released a new product in a test market without any PR or social media. Then the product launched nationally, along with PR and social media, resulting in a 67 percent sales lift between the test and national launch.
Indeed, social media is helping Taco Bell’s bottom line. According to Ad Age, which named Taco Bell its Marketer of the Year this year, the fast-food chain posted an 8 percent increase in U.S. same-store sales in 2012, which is double the gains of McDonald's. The launch of the Doritos Locos Tacos was the most-successful product launch in the company's 50-year history, Ad Age reports. It took three years and 45 prototypes to launch the product, which sold 100 million in just the first 10 weeks.
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“The main difference in strategy now vs. before is that what we are doing today in social media is real-time, and we listen and engage all the time,” said Nick Tran, head of social media at Taco Bell, in an interview with CMO.com. “You can break down the type of content we share into three categories: The first is anything Taco Bell creates internally. The other type of content we share is whatever we co-create. This is when we collaborate with influencers and give them the tools to create their own content. The last is content curation, which is basically us amplifying interesting content from our social community.”
Today Taco Bell creates content specifically for social media. And while it still promotes new products and campaigns, social has its own set strategy. The company is finding that as long as it acts human, building relationships via social is a cinch.
Spur-Of-The-Moment Vs. Preplanned
For a better idea of Taco Bell's more on-the-fly social content, Tran pointed to the Old Spice vs. Taco Bell Twitter exchange about its signature Fire Sauce. Old Spice poked fun, and Taco Bell responded in kind.
On the other hand, what Taco Bell did for the prelaunch and launch phases of its new tacos last month is a good example of preplanned content. Taco Bell challenged YouTubers to create unique videos to introduce the name of the latest Doritos Locos Tacos flavor, Fiery. The brand provided preselected content providers with the necessary information, and then let their creativity flow. More than 65 videos were created and shared in mid-August.
“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,” Tran said. “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.”
Another example is Taco Bell’s ongoing “Feed the Beat” program, which introduced a documentary film captured at SXSW where two of the program’s bands performed at Hype Machine’s Hype Hotel. A complementary film, “Hello Everywhere,” also was created, giving viewers an exclusive look at indie success story Passion Pit and emerging indie artist Wildcat! Wildcat! The film can be found on the feedthebeat.com Web site and was also distributed through social media. Currently the hour-long film has more than half-a-million views on VEVO.
According to Tran, video is working very well for Taco Bell. That includes bite-sized “snackable” content (Vine and Instagram Video) and longer-form content (YouTube). In fact, the recent U.S. Digital Video Benchmark Report, from Adobe (CMO.com's parent company) found that in the first quarter of 2012, 55 percent of overall social media content viral reach belonged to video content and by the fourth quarter that year the number had grown to 77 percent.
Taco Bell attributes its success in social media (761,000 Twitter followers, 10 million Facebook likes, and 12 million YouTube video views) to its mix of paid, owned, and earned media.
“There’s a place for paid social media advertising,” Tran told CMO.com. “If you have a paid, owned, and earned strategy where the three are working in conjunction with one another, then paid can be a great kick-start to the organic growth of a campaign. You need all three working together as a whole for amplification and reach.”
Despite its social successes, Taco Bell also faces challenges--the biggest of which, according to Tran, is staying on top of new technology and platforms. Taco Bell has a first-mover mentality, but there’s only so much a brand can do.
Vetting potential technology and partners is a collaborative effort at the company. There’s no brand center of excellence, per se, or start-up incubator programs. Instead, Taco Bell hires Millennials.
“It’s pretty interesting,” Tran explained. “Our method is hiring Millennial-minded individuals because they live and breathe social media. The digital natives entering the workforce today are passionate about social; by having them dispersed throughout our teams, 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.”