How Taco Bell Is Punching Up Its Value Pitch

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Taco Bell's the 'Feast' campaign
Taco Bell's the 'Feast' campaign Credit: Courtesy Taco Bell
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Taco Bell is running concurrent campaigns this fall: One plays up the chain's gamer cred; another aims to raise the game of value-priced fast-food marketing.

The efforts show how the Yum Brands chain is trying to make its voice stand out months into the tenure of Chief Marketing Officer Marisa Thalberg and years into its relationship with Deutsch L.A.

First, Taco Bell began airing a TV commercial and set up a temporary club-meets-arcade in New York to announce that it was giving away thousands of Sony PlayStation VR headsets. A few days later, it started a campaign centered around a modern-day-slash-17th-century theme to promote items it sells for $1 each.

For Ms. Thalberg, who joined Taco Bell in 2015 and became CMO in January, the latter push marks her first big chance to tell Taco Bell's "elevated value" story with a more subtle wit than some of its other marketing.

The origins for the "Feast" campaign began in Ms. Thalberg's office a few months ago. She knew Taco Bell wanted to promote its $1 items while other quick-service restaurants were moving up to higher-priced offers. Taco Bell brought out a line of $1 breakfast items earlier this year and already sold a number of $1 items during lunch, dinner and late night, or what the chain in the past has touted as the "fourth meal." But it had yet to advertise the products in one integrated campaign.

"We felt like this was an opportunity to sort of almost create a brand anthem about who we are and what we offer," Ms. Thalberg said.

Collider, the marketing strategy firm that Yum Brands bought in 2015, helped shape the premise of offering $1 items throughout the day into the concept that one can feast for $1 all day at Taco Bell. Deutsch L.A., Taco Bell's creative agency since 2012, executed the campaign.

Ms. Thalberg, who just before joining Taco Bell spent eight years at upscale cosmetics maker Estée Lauder, said it was time for the fast-feeder to promote the idea of value, yet in a way that did not lead with price. She likened the concept to people who shop at chains such as T.J. Maxx or Target, then boast about getting items they feel are great at a really great price. That shopping approach, she said, is different from people buying things solely based on a cheap price.

Of course, in fast food, price is still going to be called out. But for Ms. Thalberg, leading with price is not the way to win diners for the long term.

"I like it when the price is the punctuation mark," she said.

Deutsch L.A. Executive Creative Director Brett Craig said his team decided that a fresh approach to the idea of "feast for $1 all day" would include "modern urban cues" such as piercings and tattoos mixed into a setting he described as "17th-century baroque."

The look of the campaign, which was shot in Chile, is a bit tongue-in-cheek but elevated, Mr. Craig said. And in the "Feast" commercial, price is only mentioned toward the end.

"We ought to be doing things that are not the conventional approaches to things," said Mr. Craig. "The category has a certain approach to value and often it feels a little cheap. We wanted to do something that elevated our value proposition and felt totally different from the typical QSR approach."

The style is different from Taco Bell's other campaigns, including the Sony PlayStation VR one, which begins in a Taco Bell restaurant setting and morphs into a video game feel.

Taco Bell and Deutsch are hopeful that the "Feast" look stands out in places such as Instagram and Facebook. The "Feast" campaign marks the first time Taco Bell is running cinemagraphs, short loops in which one small element moves to create the illusion of a photograph in motion. In one, a woman sporting tattoos, a septum ring and a headpiece of golden forks remains stock-still while she holds a $1 shredded-chicken mini-quesadilla, then repeatedly winks.

Mr. Craig, part of the team at Deutsch that pitched and won the Taco Bell business, said working with Ms. Thalberg has been a continuation of trying to help the chain be disruptive.

"A big phrase that comes up a lot is 'category of one' and the idea being that Taco Bell is sort of like a category unto itself," Mr. Craig said of conversations with Ms. Thalberg.

Meanwhile, Taco Bell is sticking with a method that has been successful before, tapping into the gamer culture. The VR campaign marks Taco Bell's fourth collaboration with Sony Interactive Entertainment on a PlayStation promotion. Taco Bell is giving diners the chance to win the VR headset, camera, controllers and a $40 gift card for a game. Some winners might get their prizes a couple days before the headsets hit stores.

The "Feast" campaign is set to run through the end of the year, while the Sony PlayStation VR promotion closes Oct. 19.