Taco Bell Urges You to Break Out of Oppressive Breakfast Dystopia

Campaign's Not-So-Subtle References to Rival Includes Ronald McDonald-Like Dictator

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Taco Bell is tapping into Cold War-era propaganda imagery along with Orwellian and "Hunger Games" themes to launch Taco Bell's next big breakfast campaign.

In one of the most unusual breakfast campaigns ever, Taco Bell's TV campaign breaking March 24 begins with a 60-second highly stylized spot that shows two young people breaking away from an oppressive, dystopian prison-camp-like setting in a world called the "Routine Republic." There, people eat only small, round breakfast sandwiches. As a young man waits in line to receive his routine breakfast, he pulls a sheet of paper out of his pocket that has a hexagon shape on it -- a reference to the chain's A.M. Crunchwrap -- and the word "defect."

He and a young woman, run away, but guards in Soviet-era military garb and a dictator in grim face paint — eerily reminiscent of Ronald McDonald — try to stop them. As they run, Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" plays. The duo becomes known as "breakfast defectors." (Look for other subtle McDonald's references in the film, including McDonaldland-style burgers and ball pits.)

Chris Brandt, Taco Bell's chief marketing officer, said the idea behind the campaign was to highlight how "there was a sea of sameness" in fast-food breakfast. "It's the most routinized time of day, and it's hard to get people out of being on autopilot. We're pushing against that routine….we don't want to look like everyone else."

The campaign, created by Interpublic's Deutsch LA, kicks off with the 60-second spot that will air during the "Walking Dead" and March Madness games, among other shows. A longer three-minute version of the 60-second spot will live online and will also run in theaters before the movie "Insurgent." A 45-second propaganda-style film (snippets of which can be seen in the three-minute film), will also live online. On TV, the company will air 30-second spots with "breakfast defectors" who are actual Taco Bell customers giving their testimonies on why they like Taco Bell's breakfast.

One 30-second spot will highlight the newest product launching later this week -- a biscuit taco that comes in egg and bacon or fried chicken varieties. It replaces the Waffle Taco, which is being phased out because it's "run its course," said Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol. The fried chicken, he said, is a product unique to Taco Bell in that the breading is made out of crumbled tortilla chips. It will also be available outside of the breakfast time frame.

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The campaign includes propaganda-inspired posters that will be scattered around New York and Los Angeles starting March 23. The chain put significant digital and social media muscle behind the effort, which, among other things, will encourage people to visit its two new websites: BreakfastDefectors.com and RoutineRepublic.com. The company will also offer giveaways and enlist its stable of social-media influencers to spread the word.

Mr. Brandt noted that while some older customers may draw parallels with the campaign and Cold War-era ideologies, Taco Bell's younger customers will think the campaign was more inspired by the "Hunger Games" franchise. Many of the scenes in the spot were filmed in a decommissioned power plant and a meat packing plant in Hungary.

Taco Bell launched its breakfast menu nationally last March with a campaign that showed more than 20 real-life Ronald McDonalds professing their love for Taco Bell's breakfast. A later execution portrayed people who like Egg McMuffins as hopelessly outdated. Mr. Niccol said that since the launch, breakfast has accounted for about 6% of Taco Bell's U.S. sales, which is about what the company expected, though it plans on growing that number over time. "Some of our competitors have been at it for 25 years and its 25% of their business," he said. "This is a great starting point, we just have to break habits."

Parent company Yum Brands reported U.S. same-store sales grew 3% in 2014 and 7% for the fourth quarter, driven by breakfast sales.

Breakfast is indeed a difficult category to break into, because of people's routines and because it has been dominated by McDonald's for so long. Other chains like Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks have entered the daypart, but their selling points, especially Starbucks, are coffee. Taco Bell does have coffee — it even recently launched a Cinnabon variety and also sells iced coffee — but it markets its food much more. "It's still a small percentage of what we sell, but we've made progress," said Mr. Niccol.

Overall, nearly two-thirds of consumers drink coffee for breakfast, and 40% of consumers go to fast-food restaurants for breakfast at least sometimes, according to a Technomic report. But the biggest motivator for why consumers will choose a specific chain is value "because patronage at these concepts is relatively frequent, making affordability a necessity," the report said. In other words, it's a routine.

Taco Bell is also breaking away from the fast food pack in several other ways. Among its new products rolling out later in the year will be be rolling out new products, including the Quesalupa in the latter half of the year. It's also testing Cap'n Crunch Delights (donut holes made of the cereal) in select markets, along with a Frito Taco. "We're very optimistic about innovation in the back half of 2015," he said.

The chain will also be working on a loyalty program that Mr. Niccol said will be a "gamification of loyalty"; marketing its afternoon snacks as part of a "Happier Hour" promotion; and updating its Dollar Cravings offering with various burritos going into test. Taco Bell will also be the first chain to offer Mountain Dew's Kick Start, a morning beverage made of a mix of juice and Mountain Dew.

Next year, Taco Bell will looking to open a location made out of a shipping container, which it tested at SXSW and hoping to open locations without drive-thrus in more urban settings.

"We're doing innovation across all the dayparts," said Mr. Niccol. "Big innovations where people will never see that coming."

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