Taco Bell Owes U.S. Free Tacos Again, but Sulking Unlikely

On-Air Mentions Among Benefits of World Series Promotion

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Time for Taco Bell to pay up again. The fast feeder returned to the World Series this year with its "Steal a base, steal a taco" promotion.

There wasn't much time for suspense in this fall classic, however, as Tampa Bay's Jason Bartlett stole second in the fifth inning of game one last night. Although it may be cold comfort to his team, which lost to the Phillies 3-2, Mr. Bartlett did secure "free tacos for America" and has since signed with Taco Bell for PR purposes and for an ad to boost awareness of the giveaway.

Stealing the spotlight
As part of the buy, Taco Bell also owns video rights to Mr. Bartlett's steal. But it could be the fast feeder that's making out like a bandit. The game's announcers on the Fox network, which broadcast the game, told viewers about free tacos at Taco Bell on Oct. 28, and Taco Bell President Greg Creed was interviewed on camera about the giveaway, although he gave the wrong date.

Last year's integration, tied to Red Sox rookie Jacob Ellsbury's stolen base in game two, generated more than 900 news stories and 234 million total media impressions during and after the World Series, said Taco Bell spokesman Rob Poetsch. The company's consumer research following the series showed 83% of respondents had a favorable association with the brand. "This was the highest point for the brand," Mr. Poetsch said. "And more people were favorable to Taco Bell than to McDonald's or Burger King."

Mr. Poetsch said Taco Bell has boosted its World Series ad buy this year, although Nielsen data on media spending isn't available yet. Taco Bell was one of the World Series' top 10 advertisers last year; it was estimated that the fast-food chain spent $5.6 million advertising the first promotion, while Ad Age estimated that the giveaway itself cost less than $1 million and generated priceless publicity.

According to YouGov Polimetrix, Taco Bell's buzz rating doubled last October, from a seven to a 15. This year, the brand is starting from a much higher level, an 18. There hasn't been much movement so far.

Perhaps that's because the chain is doing so much better. In the past year, Taco Bell has launched its better-for-you Fresco menu, a value platform and a line of fruity frozen drinks, and cemented its position as the late-night leader. It's also become the cash cow of the Yum Brands portfolio, after languishing briefly as the laggard.

Indie-music backer
Taco Bell has also been establishing itself as an independent-music promoter. Through its "Feed the Beat" promotion, Taco Bell is working with 100 indie bands. Consumers are voting for their favorite acts on the chain's website, three will get recording deals, and an integrated marketing campaign will follow.

To drive this World Series promotion home, the chain began advertising a week earlier, adding steal-a-base tags to its 15-second spots promoting its "volcano" taco. Last night, Taco Bell was also advertising its Triple-Steak burrito and Fruitista Freeze drinks. The chain spent $239 million in measured media during 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Taco Bell's agency is DraftFCB, Irvine, Calif.

Some marketers think there are better opportunities for Taco Bell.

"These tie-ins work the best where the partnership is in some ways a natural partnership," said Northwestern University marketing professor Julie Hennessy, "where there is something about Taco Bell and baseball that has something to do with a top-level competition or where the brand is trying to go." She added that the Olympic sponsorship by McDonald's is a perfect example of a natural tie-in. Analysts also believe that Mickey D's summer association with the recent Summer Games boosted same-store sales.

Out of the ballpark
Debbie Myers, VP-media services, sponsorships at Taco Bell, admitted that World Series attendance and viewership is wider than the core fast-food market.

"We feed about 45 million people a week," she said. "When you look at those kinds of consumers, you're much bigger than the sweet spot of 18 to 35."

Still, she said, "loving fast food is a state of mind," and the World Series is a great place for Taco Bell because the brand maintains its voice. Steal a base, steal a taco is still edgy and sassy enough to be Taco Bell.

"That's not something you would see a bank or an insurance company do," she said.

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