People Love Taco Bell, and No, It’s Not Just the Food

Michael Beausoleil

Ask anyone their opinion of Taco Bell and they’ll fall into one of two camps. The first is the group who finds the food disgusting, complains about the ingredients, and says the eating there makes them physically sick (likely in more grotesque terms). The second camp, the one I fall into, loves the place in spite of its flaws.

When looking at young Americans, there seems to be a sizable population that holds Taco Bell in high regards. When there are so many fast food options out there, Taco Bell doesn’t seem as if it should be the champion of the young Americans. It’s not particularly new, it’s not healthy, and it’s not even Authentic Mexican.

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Millennials have a reputation of opting for organic products, embracing social causes, and promoting small businesses. Taco Bell embodies none of these virtues, but they have a strong following in the Millennial and Gen Z crowds. Their strategy works, and for the past couple of decades customer satisfaction with the Taco Bell brand has trended upward.

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(Photo: American customer satisfaction index: Taco Bell restaurants in the U.S. 2000–2020 via Statista)

The first camp of people out there will tell you everything wrong with Taco Bell. The other camp, the satisfied customers, so them doing so much right.

How Taco Bells Gets the Right Attention

Customers aren’t just happy because they can get a full meal for under $5. Satisfaction is increasing because Taco Bell gets the right people into their doors. They’ve set proper expectations, and customers are delivered the exact experience they expect.

Many people believe Taco Bell is a prime example of using social media well, but they’ve always had a way of playing with boundaries in their marketing. Even before the internet was commonplace, Taco Bell took the idea of marketing lightly. In 1996 they infamously ran advertisements in national publications claiming they purchased the Liberty Bell. This was an April Fool’s Day joke, but it was an effective one. The joke turned $300,000 worth of advertising into massive publicity and over $1 million in increased sales. Stunts like this proved that getting attention for the wrong reasons can move sales in the right direction.

The Taco Liberty Bell was a monumental prank for the brand, but this tone is mimicked in their current media strategy. They’ve earned some buzz when they’ve clapped back at other brands, such as when Old Spice questioned their fire sauce.

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(Photo: via Taco Bell’s Twitter)

Of course, the exchange between Old Spice and Taco Bell is tongue in cheek, but it isn’t an unusual in the world of Taco Bell. People are more accustomed to brands who ignore other companies and only take subtle jabs at competitors. Taco Bell is not that brand.

On a daily basis, Taco Bell would rather make the jokes than be the butt of the jokes. They talk to their audience as if they’re friends and sharing memes with one another. It simple and inexpensive, but it has strong implications when it comes to gaining audience engagement.

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(Photo: via Taco Bell’s Twitter)

Over time, their laid back presence translates into brand expectations. You don’t go to Taco Bell for a nice meal, but you do go for a judgement-free meal. Taco Bell wants you to have fun, enjoy your taco, and don’t take it too seriously.

Self Awareness Shines Through

In the fast food industry, any dollar is a good dollar. Taco Bell knows this, and they work to appeal to their customers. They are intentionally targeting a younger demographic of individuals 18–34. This means they need to know how these people behave and know how the brand fits into their lifestyles.

I remember growing up and seeing a Taco Bell campaign for their late night “Fourth Meal” menu which premiered in 2006.

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(Photo: via Taco Bell)

I didn’t recognize this at the time, but this menu is targeting late night diners returning from a night of drinking. Of course, Taco Bell isn’t going to call these items “drunk food,” but they’re perfectly content feeding the 2 AM crowd.

While the Fourth Meal embraces the type of people who may eat at Taco Bell, the brand also needs to navigate its image when scandals arise. A few years ago they were challenged when it was alleged their tacos weren’t filled with real meat. The brand clarified that they use real meat and disclosed the exact ingedients is in their tacos. Yes, it’s all edible, but this would be damaging for a brand who is heavily health-focused.

Taco Bell uses these types of stories as permission to experiment. Perhaps they’re not known for their ingredients, but they know their food isn’t harmful to consume. Around the time of the meat scandal arose, Taco Bell responded with shells made of Doritos.

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(Photo: via Yahoo Finance/Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images)

By knowing their reputation, Taco Bell can plan their next move appropriately. It’s not a game of avoiding criticism, it’s a game of keeping your audiences on your good side. When Taco Bell makes a shell out of Doritos, they’re essentially telling their audience they know they’re serving junk food, but it’s the tastiest junk food you can get.

When All Else Fails, Do Good

Many of Taco Bell’s changes over the years have been to make the brand become more fun. They’re aware of American culture, they hear the concerns of young people, but they’re still a fast food restaurant and can only operate within certain boundaries. Sometimes this means pumping a dose of lightheartedness into the world. After all, we can probably thank Taco Bell for getting the taco emoji on our phones.

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If you only focus on their advertisements, you will only see the fun side of Taco Bell. For some, that’s enough, but if you dig a little deeper you will see their focus on change. Each year Taco Bell states its commitments for social progress and the development of their employees.

Going into 2020, the brand made the promise to introduce more recyclable packaging for customers. Vegetarians could look forward to seeing more options on the menu and carnivores can expect their beef is becoming more sustainable. The brand also focuses on their employees, pledging to provide leadership opportunities and educational support.

As the year progressed, Taco Bell faced challenges from COVID-19 and need to adapt further. During the pandemic, they began to emphasize a need for employee safety and contactless dining. For the customers who relied on their affordable meals they would see one clear message: Yes, we’re open.

The Taco Bell Generation

Perhaps young adults love Taco Bell because it’s relatable. When you look at its advertising and public image, the brand isn’t disguising itself as anything other than cheap fast food. In terms of marketing, they’ve identified their role in the food chain and they portray this image in customer engagement on social media. Through their collaborations and promotions, people have come to respect the brand without them needing to increase the quality of their food.

Customer satisfaction has risen over the years, and this is likely a result of multiple factors. Knowing Taco Bell has sustainable initiatives and employee development on their agenda may allow customers to dine with reduced guilt. However, their bigger accomplishment is attracting the right people into their stores. There are two ways to deliver a good experience to the customer: raise your quality and lower customer expectations. Taco Bell may be doing both, and customers are none the wiser.

It seems Taco Bell has more competition than ever. Over the past couple of decades Americans have watched the number of Chipotle and Del Tacolocations multiply. Other fast food chains like Jack in the Box and Burger King have tried to entice taco eaters to drive through different windows with their budget tacos. With all of the competition, Taco Bell needed to establish its identity in the fast food market.

This is where the branding excels. Somehow, Taco Bell’s lax attitude and experimental menu has gotten the brand a lot of buzz. It’s almost an ironic lifestyle brand, one that contradicts every value held by traditional Millennials and Gen Zers. With this attitude, Taco Bell has become exceptional and they didn't even have to change their menu.

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San Diego, CA
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