The lawsuit stems from a former employee who stated that Taco Bell has been advertising its meat as "seasoned beef," but claims evidence in the form of lab results shows that Taco Bell is including oat products as a seasoning. The problem, the plaintiff argues, is that oats is not a seasoning and cannot be used as seasoning in "seasoned beef," and further that Taco Bell has been purposefully mislabeling its product, and ultimately tricking their customers.
The relative merits of this case are a building meme on social news sites like Reddit, where one user pointed out that that oats are "filler" as defined by the USDA, and this changes the actual percentages of beef/seasoning/filler, effectively putting its meat product into another lower classification.
As the debate raged, the online discussion crossed over recently to mainstream media, where CNN posted a humorous video summarizing the current status of the suit.
Radical transparency or just plain honesty?
Since the story broke, Taco Bell has been active in dispelling consumer concern over one of its main ingredients, almost instantly going on both the defensive as well as the offensive. For example, Taco Bell's corporate home page is 100% dedicated to addressing the controversy sharing its beef ingredients, print ads and direct links to media relations.
Furthermore it has been actively using the hashtags #beef in addition to #TacoBell in all tweets related to the suit. One look at Taco Bell's tweets and you'll find both a serious tone addressing the suit in the form of embedded video starring the president of Taco Bell, as well as links to humorous musings on the Colbert Report's take on "tacogate."
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Strikingly, it launched a paid-media effort with a full-page ad that exclaims "Thank You For Suing Us," which further attempts to dispel as false the accusations regarding the makeup of its seasoned beef in a brilliantly provocative fashion that is guaranteed to get your attention. It has also changed its search ad copy to "Taco Bell Official Facts" regarding the seasoned beef lawsuit when searching or "Taco Bell" on Google.
So, from a holistic media perspective, Taco Bell is doing the right thing. It's being proactive; it's connecting with its consumers and sharing its perspectives around why it considers the lawsuit frivolous. It's going out of its way to show the recipe of its product to anyone who will listen and rationally explaining that oats in their beef recipe is the equivalent to beans in chili. In any other industry we'd consider this a successful attempt at utilizing social media with paid and owned media to position the brand against its detractors and share its brand story with its consumers. We would praise Taco Bell for embracing transparency. But is it truly being transparent?
It is my belief that there is a difference between brand transparency and brand honesty. A few years back while doing client research, I read a great post on a similar topic. In the context of brand honesty, a brand chooses to address a topic, and speak truthfully about said topic.
Brand transparency however actually involves brand honesty, but the two words aren't synonymous. To quote blogger Chris Freeland, "Transparency is more than pervasive honesty; it's open and honest about everything."
So Taco Bell is being brand honest and that's not a bad thing. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Taco Bell President Greg Creed said, "I'm not a food scientist. But what I can assure everybody is that every ingredient is in there for a purpose. ... All of those things are the product. So there are no fillers, there are no substitutes, there are no extenders. I can absolutely assure you of that."
There are still brands today that follow a different course of action when faced with controversy with a see-no-evil/hear-no-evil/speak-no-evil approach -- diverting consumers to a customer service line and countersuing their accusers.
Yet from its response so far, I'd say Taco Bell should be recognized for playing by the rules of the new brand world -- by recognizing that consumer concern can become chaos in a matter of hours through social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and unprecedented expectations of dialogue between brand and consumers.
I hope Taco Bell's hard work in keeping the trust of its core advocates through this contentious period in the brand's history results in a stronger brand-consumer bond moving forward.
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