Lessons from Taco Bell’s #onlyintheapp

Considering the massive swing in consumer expectations over the last decade, a shift from traditional marketing to disruptive marketing makes perfect sense. With every passing day buyers become more and more savvy. This means that the targeting approach for these consumers cannot remain stagnant. For some marketers, a shrewd customer can be extremely dangerous. For other marketers, a shrewd customer can be extremely lucrative.

To be more specific, disruptive marketing refers to the ability to communicate a solution to currently unsatisfied customers in order to meet new demands. This means either re-shaping an existing product or service or creating a new product or service to meet the needs of an emerging market. As such, marketing teams must be able to challenge any and all conventional thinking to truly “disrupt” the market and propel their brand forward. Taco Bell has become the king of this approach.

After doing some internal research, Taco Bell found that 70 percent of their orders are drive-thru and 30 percent are in-store. On top of that, 50 percent of the customers who purchase their food items in-store take them to go. All of these numbers add up to one thing: Taco Bell customers want their food quickly, they want it to-go, and they want a speedy ordering process. The solution of mobile ordering was clear for Taco Bell, but their approach is what has our eyebrows raised.

Taco Bell could have introduced mobile ordering in a lot of different ways. They chose the route of disruption, and it was a homerun from every direction.

Building a Worth Audience

We’ll get to the substance of their #onlyintheapp campaign later. For now, let’s focus on how they knew this would work. Taco Bell was speaking to an eager, eyes-wide-open, all-ears audience, and this didn’t happen by chance. Current rankings regarding social media marketing have Taco Bell sitting pretty on the top, outranking the likes of Starbucks, Wendy’s, and even McDonald’s. Social media marketing and an ability to connect with their target audience is where Taco Bell really shines.

How do they do it? For starters, the team at the Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, CA does not work in an office. These social media gurus work in what they call “The Center for Social Excellence”. This title sets the tone for their approach, their mindset, and their inevitable knack for beating out competition. Their social efforts are the essence of their highly-engaged audience with a focus on these things:

  • Mouth-watering, highly-sharable, authentic, and creative content
  • They speak with their fans – don’t be surprised if Taco Bell’s Twitter account retweets or responds to your post about an amazing burrito
  • They post a ton of user-submitted images – content repurposing at its finest
  • They give their fans something to cheer for – like advanced access to try their new Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco before anyone else
  • They engage with other brands – who could forget the hysterical 2012 exchange between Taco Bell and Old Spice?

Simply put, Taco Bell does social media really, really well. This quickly translates to an audience ready and willing to listen to messaging, engage in competitions and games, and most importantly, make purchases. They have managed to humanize their brand in the most relatable, “we want to be on their team” type of way. Building an audience like this places their marketing efforts in a position to leave a mark and win big almost every time.

Lesson #1: Be Human

Back in 1996, Taco Bell did the unthinkable and placed an ad in The New York Times with the headline: “Taco Bell Buys the Liberty Bell”. In the days before social media, they took to the newspapers to inform the nation that one of the country’s most historic and iconic assets was now to be called the “Taco Liberty Bell”. Pure disruption ensued. Thousands of angry people called to complain until Taco Bell announced that afternoon that it was April 1st and this was all a big April Fool’s joke.

What happened next? The media ran wild with the story. Over 70 million Americans heard about the made-up story and the company’s revenues increased dramatically that day and in the days that followed. Yes, this happened over 15 years ago, but Taco Bell still maintains that same sense of humor about themselves today. Social media allows for them to continue this persona and, as a result, allows them to continually connect with their audience. It is this human social media presence that opens the doors wide for enormous marketing success.

Taco Bell commercials make us laugh. Taco Bell’s social media accounts interact with other brands in the most comical ways possible. All of this adds up to massive media buzz, and more importantly, a humanized company that people can’t help but love.

 Lesson #2: Make a Splash

Taco Bell could have announced their app in a lot of ways. Mobile ordering isn’t a groundbreaking idea. It’s old and apps are old and none of this is that exciting. A mobile app to order food is a great idea and it’s an idea that companies like Starbucks, Panera Bread, and McDonald’s already had. So, how did Taco Bell make such a splash while introducing their app? Brilliant social media marketing.

On a lovely late-October morning, Taco Bell went completely black. From their Facebook and Twitter accounts to their website and their entire online presence – nothing. Their 10.6 million Facebook fans, their 1.4 million Twitter followers, and their 400,000 Instagram followers all saw the same blacked out screen. All of this in an effort to promote their new app. With the glowing white letters on the black screen, “The New Way To Taco Bell Isn’t On Twitter It’s #onlyintheapp”. Pure genius!

In what seemed like an instant, #onlyintheapp was trending and the hashtag was used over 5,000 times on Twitter – potentially reaching almost 6 million people.

Lesson #3: Keep it Simple

Taco Bell is indeed a pioneer marketing brand. They continually demonstrate just how well they understand the market and their audience, and how to seamlessly integrate the two. While we certainly don’t want to belittle the complex, intricate effort that it takes to come up with these incredible marketing strategies, one thing is for certain: Taco Bell understands the value in simplicity.

The concept of white space has always been a cornerstone of design. The simplicity of the white space allows for direct communication of a design. The blackout idea of the #onlyintheapp campaign was simple, powerful, and drew up endless curiosity. They didn’t have to beg anyone to download the app, they baited them, teased them with the idea, and left them starving for more information.

The simplicity of Taco Bell’s strategy created a compelling call to action, the approach got people talking, and just as they had planned for, the execution got people to download the app.

Taco Bell has cultivated a cult-like following and it isn’t by chance. Since building their loyal, engaged audience with a humanized brand strategy, Taco Bell continues to lead the pack in their marketing efforts. Making a splash with simplicity isn’t easy, and it certainly doesn’t happen without extensive testing and research. But when it comes to flawless execution of an original marketing idea, Taco Bell has truly invented the wheel.

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