It was recently reported that Taco Bell’s Nacho Fries have been the most successful new product launch in the company’s history. With over 53 million orders sold between January 24th and mid-March – we had to investigate how Taco Bell has been so successful with their marketing.

We’ve all been there. It’s 2:12 am and you and a group of friends are on your way home from the night’s frivolities when one of them says, “T-Bell?” This is the exact target market that Taco Bell has been playing to for the past several years and it has paid off for them as they have recently overtaken Burger King as the fourth largest restaurant chain in the US. Taco Bell’s target audience has been firmly planted in the 18-34-year-old market and they have shown little evidence that they will be straying from that anytime soon. Unlike McDonald’s or Burger King, at Taco Bell, you won’t find play zones or toy-laden kids meals at, you don’t find them offering apple slices, so parents don’t feel bad about bringing their kids in, and you don’t see commercials that feature families eating a nice meal. What you do see is a heavily focused strategy and what Taco Bell lacks in width, they make up for in depth.

Taco Bell offers a unified brand experience through both its television and web commercials as well as its social media campaigns and partnerships. Let’s start with the company’s main source of advertising: their television commercials. T-Bell has been known for their zany, humorous spots ever since the release of their Yo Quiero Taco Bell spot in the late 90’s featuring the famous Chihuahua. More recently, however, most of Taco Bell’s advertisements have been focused on the release of new products. Because Taco Bell releases new items so frequently, they have been able to structure most of their commercial campaign around it. While they all serve to push excitement about new products, they serve the dual purpose of having a statement about the brand itself. This is illustrated in their new Web of Fries spot featuring Josh Duhamel. The ad is built around the new Nacho Fries, but they are just the vehicle used to deliver a story that says something about the edginess of the Taco Bell brand.

Even when Taco Bell steps away from specific product marketing into general brand marketing, they paint a much different picture from the likes of Burger King or McDonald’s. Their 2013 Super Bowl commercial illustrates this:

This self-aware ad features a group of elderly individuals out partying and pulling the type of pranks that many would associate with people in their 20’s, the ad even features a Spanish version of the song We Are Young by Fun. I would be hard-pressed to give examples of a McDonald’s spot that would have such deep nods to party culture or references to the Illuminati. When I think of a McDonald’s ad, it is much closer to the one they recently released entitled, Plenty of Time.

This ad is safe and family friendly, designed to play on a simple emotional connection. This to me is the benefit of trimming down your target audience. When you have an increasingly wide market, while it does give you access to more opportunities, it also subjects you to the curse of being for anybody, that being, that you have to market for everybody. This leads to a safer brand image, which is perfectly fine as evidenced by the fact that McDonald’s is by far the most popular food chain in the US, but it can prevent a feeling of connection to a brand.

Taco Bell has been able to connect incredibly well with their target audience through sponsorships and social media campaigns like the Taco Bell Student Section for the College Football Playoffs, that paid for student’s tickets to the games or the Taco Emoji Engine where people could tweet them emojis and it would mash them up into a new emoji GIF. One of their most impressive feats is the general interaction they have with their followers on social media. When tweeted at, they usually have more than a safe generic reply and will come back at you with a quippy remark that feels personal and original.

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These are the types of responses and campaigns that have really endeared Taco Bell with its target audience, something that is not easy and can be just as likely to come off as forced if it’s not done correctly *cough *cough IHOP.

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In this case, the brand came off more like a parent trying to talk like the kids do as opposed to a feeling like they actually understand us. This is why the safe approach can be so tempting to brands. It’s easy. But if you can pull off genuine marketing like Taco Bell, your audience will appreciate you all the more for it.

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For now, Taco Bell remains a staple in the diets of the “poor college student” and as long as they are able to continue their genuine and focused interactions with the demographic that will be unlikely to change anytime soon.

By: Michael McKelvey @mckelvey92