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Taco Bell Takes Early Adopter Approach To Digital To Drive Sales


Taco-Bell-Juliet-Corsinita-Cheryl-GreshamTo reach its youthful audience, Taco Bell frequently tests platforms before some of the details are figured out, such as measurement.

But that strategy is working: The company’s sales have grown in each of the past four years, fueled by the success of Doritos Locos Tacos in 2012.

In 2013, Taco Bell became the first advertiser on Waze, and in 2014 was the first quick-service restaurant to advertise on Instagram. It’s also been quick to adopt influencer marketing.

The next three platforms Taco Bell is testing are Wishbone, a polling app for teenage girls with 3 million users; Slingshot, the “male” version of Wishbone; and, intriguingly, Slack, where it will be doing a native-style integration.

“So many brands are targeting an older audience, so the disruption of our [media] environment hasn’t hit them yet,” said Juliet Corsinita, the VP of media and brand partnerships at Taco Bell. “By virtue of who we appeal to, we are on the front end of this. We have an insatiable curiosity to find the right partners, find out how to measure what we’re doing and if it feels instinctually right, because there are a lot of times we can’t validate it to someone [with data].”

Pursuing tests with nascent apps generally requires more time and less money than the average media plan, but they’re core to Taco Bell’s marketing strategy. It tries to encourage companies to beta test with the restaurant chain by saying “yes or no quickly,” Corsinita said, versus taking months to sign off on a test.

At the ANA Masters of Media conference in Florida last Thursday, Corsinita and media director Cheryl Gresham sat down with AdExchanger to talk about Taco Bell’s media strategy.

How is Taco Bell thinking about working versus nonworking media? In doing things like influencer marketing, are you shifting the allocation between paid, owned and earned media?

JULIET CORSINTIA: All our media is working, whether or not it’s “paid.” They support different roles within the plan. We are too broad of a brand not to do a bit of everything, but we go through a lot of prioritization based on the target. We think, “What’s the best place to bring that insight to light?”

CHERYL GRESHAM: The time spent on digital initiatives like influencer marketing is so much greater than what you are spending dollarswise in the space. It consumes a disproportionate amount of our time and our agency’s time.

How do you pay for that time?


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Corsinita: It’s a combination. We try to leverage added value and integration opportunities as scrappily as we can. We lean on publisher partners that we feel comfortable with, that understand our voice, to the extent we need to and when resources are fully tapped. Our consumer’s mindset is OK with certain marketing messages that are not polished, that are in the voice of a friend. That’s not to say that influencer marketing is inexpensive, but you have to pick and choose where you are going to have to have that impact, and that it’s fully measured.

How are you measuring the impact of mobile spend?

Corsinita: You don’t want to fund just what you can measure because measurement is behind. Measurement has not caught up to consumer adoption. Anything geotargeted has hardcore measurement. Mobile video, mobile companion units that go with digital audio – that’s more difficult to measure. Do I value if Pandora gives us a companion [banner] unit? Yeah, because I don’t know what a Quesalupa looks like and that shows the visual. We try to keep a ceiling on the amount of display that we do, but there is a certain amount that comes along with what you do. 

Where have you had success measuring on mobile?

Gresham: One of the big questions we have is if we move dollars to digital, can we drive sales as quickly as TV does? Next-day sales spike after a TV ad. In digital, we’ve found that can happen. When we did a study with PlaceIQ, 41% percent of people exposed to our ad went to a Taco Bell in the next two days. That two-day number was impactful.

Do you tie marketing spend to the store level?

Corsinita: It’s one brand, one calendar and everyone is rallying around those same brand voices. We aren’t looking to do attribution to the store level. It’s more about how did that particular marketing application drive a mix of that product [like a new taco] or message [like the Live Mas scholarship].

How do you think about transparency in your agency relationship?

Corsinita: You have to have trust in the relationship. But, that said, there is the Reaganesque “trust, but verify.” We have to demonstrate to franchisees that we are delivering GRPs, that there is competitive separation, things like that. Additionally, we have worked hard to construct agency agreements that reflect the transparency we are agreeing to.

You were in the latest ANA/WhiteOps study. What did you find?

Gresham: We saw a 30% uptick in fraud in the fourth quarter. We were spending more in programmatic that quarter. We are working with partners like Integral AdScience and WhiteOps to help us identify and minimize that, to at least ensure we are not paying for it. Fraud is something we think about and consider. When we look at new partners and see a list of sites 98 pages long, we will randomly check the sites ourselves to make sure everything looks legitimate.

Corsinita: That’s a differentiator. You need media experts that can dive in the way Cheryl is and provide that second check. No one is going to care as much as the brand.

Is TV still the powerhouse it once was, where sales directly track with GRPs?

Corsinita: During different times of the year, we use more video in the digital world and less in the linear world. We are picking from a large pallet of opportunities we know work for the brand. Some have stronger seasonality than we have seen in the past. We would never say we don’t think TV is a big deal. We are buying less than we did three years ago, but what we are buying is a fantastic partnership.

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