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The Taco Bell effect: QSRs’ digital opportunities with millennials

It’s no surprise that millennials, the “foodie generation”1 that loves to share experiences, is big on hashtagging, tweeting, and ‘gramming their meals.2 But did you know that 83 percent of millennials connect with brands on social media and 62 percent say such engagement will make them loyal customers?3 When you look at all the data, it’s easy to see how food brands — especially the quick-service and fast-casual eats this demo loves4 — can win big with millennials. One trailblazer on this front? Taco Bell.

Taco Bell has wooed millennials in the digital space and watched sales skyrocket as a result.

The fast-food chain’s social-media strategy helped it surpass $9 billion in sales in 20155 and beat fourth-quarter estimates earlier this year. The secret? A multi-platform approach that is energetic, creative, nimble — and, we’re guessing, pretty fun to execute. Exhibit A: Taco Bell launched a petition in 2014 to get a taco emoji into the iOS emoji keyboard,6 and, when it arrived, launched a “taco emoji engine,” which turned fan tweets into cool GIFs.

Today, Taco Bell’s Twitter account boasts 1.7 million followers,7 whom the brand engages using stunts like the “stolen game” taco giveaway during the NBA Finals. On Instagram (841,000 followers8), it incites enthusiasm for cult items like the beefy crunch burrito, requesting — and receiving — more than 50,000 likes of one beefy crunch burrito photo to extend the item’s run on the menu. The brand also has a solid Snapchat presence, with platform-specific content like customizable hot sauce packets and a recurring series of menu hacks.

Taco Bell’s vigorous sales — plus those of other social-media savvy restaurants like Chick-fil-A and Sweetgreen — suggest that betting on social media can pay off financially. (And there are cred dividends, too: You can’t beat organic exposure like the kind Taco Bell got when high schoolers began taking senior photos there.) So how can other brands, especially QSRs, cultivate their own hot-sauced magic?


Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Taco Bell’s social-media approach is to interact. Millennials don’t love one-way communication,9 and campaigns like the emoji engine prove that Taco Bell knows it. Marketers should create memorable experiences, then be responsive when their audience actually responds. (It’s Taco Bell FTW again here, with two-way exchanges like its fandom of customers’ Bell-themed YouTube videos.) Another great example is Chick-fil-A’s Twitter-promoted “Tweet Art,” which featured custom illustrations of memorable customer tweets.

Tell a story

Phenomena like the senior-photo trend also illustrate what can happen when marketers tell a story, not just sell a product. People talk about good stories, and talk — read: word-of-mouth recommendations — goes far with millennials.10 Consider Sweetgreen’s Instagrammed random acts of sweetness and Chipotle’s on-message “Farmed and Dangerous,” a Hulu comedy series exploring “the outrageously twisted and utterly unsustainable world of industrial agriculture.” Chipotle’s strategy has an edge in that it stars Ray Wise, aka Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks (a millennial fave), but both brands are on the right track by leading with a message of substance, rather than sales.

Go tech wild

Perhaps the biggest lesson Taco Bell can teach marketers is to up their tech games; those digital natives they’re targeting can keep up with all sorts of digital strategies. As Taco Bell does with the whimsically weird descriptions on its online ordering system, marketers can drum up excitement over operational innovations like mobile payment, in-app ordering, and emoji ordering. They can also broadcast the brand personality with push notifications.

Outside the food sphere, the Moon app does this well, with irreverent messages like “ugh, expectations” that keep users thinking about the app even when they’re not using it. Fashion resaler Poshmark does the same, with cultish, comically inspirational notifications like “Drink some coffee, put some gangster rap on, and handle it.”

Proceed with caution

By creating memorable, authentic experiences around food that make creative use of social-media platforms, marketers can appeal to millennials where they are. Just don’t appear to try too hard: Even Taco Bell took a little ribbing for an on-the-nose attempt to master the language of the young folk.