TACO BELL HEARING CALL OF THE BORDER;BOZELL SERVES UP SHAQ, HAKEEM IN CAMPAIGN TO CORE CONSUMERS

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Taco Bell Corp. made a big splash with its adoption of Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon, but the real changes in the marketer's game plan are yet to come.

The PepsiCo unit late next month will try to give its brand one identity with the new "When the Border Calls" campaign from Bozell/Salvati Montgomery Sakoda, Costa Mesa, Calif., focusing on core menu items but weaving in the reduced-fat Border Lights menu.

Since January, Taco Bell has put many feet forward, first with the $75 million Border Lights introduction, then with an ambitious new kids marketing program and a summer tie-in to Paramount Pictures' "Congo."

"We're looking for a more cohesive look and feel to Taco Bell overall," said Jerry Gramaglia, senior VP-marketing. "We allocated 100% of our spending to drive Border Lights, but not to be talking to the 80% of customers who are interested in core products and value, I think there was some tradeoff."

Taco Bell overestimated Border Lights' potential, predicting it would become a $5 billion business representing half of sales by the end of the decade. The reduced-fat menu is actually generating about 20% of sales, according to Mr. Gramaglia.

Messrs. O'Neal and Olajuwon, who've each signed on for two years with Taco Bell, will play a key role in maintaining the marketer's core audience of young men, ages 18-25.

The basketball stars will not appear in initial "When the Border Calls" ads but will be used mostly in a promotional manner, as they are in two current spots supporting the new Double Decker taco. The ads were directed by Spike Lee and produced by Bozell.

The deal is another in a long line of endorsements for Mr. O'Neal but could be the key to accelerating Mr. Olajuwon's marketing career.

Mr. Olajuwon will appear in future Taco Bell ads by himself, and talks are underway with sister brand Pepsi-Cola.

PepsiCo veteran Alan Pottasch worked as a consultant to Taco Bell this spring to help smooth the brand's identity. The resulting "When the Border Calls" campaign "drives off the craving and taste people have for Taco Bell," Mr. Gramaglia said.

A similar attempt to focus on taste in late 1993 was unsuccessful. Launched in November 1993, Taco Bell's "Cross the Border" campaign from Foote, Cone, & Belding, San Francisco, moved too far afield from the marketer's traditional value message. Same-store sales in early 1994 were flat, and Taco Bell put its account in review six months later.

This time around, "the challenge is to keep all the plates spinning," Mr. Gramaglia said. "How do we broaden our franchise with kids meals and with Border Lights, which catches the wave of population growth, without losing focus against our core-the young adult that has led explosive growth for Taco Bell?"

Mr. Olajuwon's new agent, Integrated Sports International, East Rutherford, N.J., brokered the $1 million deal for the Houston Rockets center. Mr. Olajuwon has long been considered one of the National Basketball Association's classiest personalities and most dominating players, but his Nigerian heritage and accent have hindered U.S. endorsement success.

Mr. O'Neal, meanwhile, will perform a rap song in an upcoming radio ad for Taco Bell, created by the Richards Group, Dallas.

Producing the basketball ads and the new "When the Border Calls" campaign, Bozell has reaffirmed its role as primary agency on the account, with the Richards Group working on radio and special assignments.

Taco Bell's decision in May to shift the Border Lights assignment from the Richards Group to Bozell raised industry eyebrows. The marketer's meeting with New York shop Deutsch Inc. fueled speculation Taco Bell wanted to add another agency.

Said Mr. Gramaglia: "We have enough agencies right now."

Bozell will also handle ads for kids meals, including an upcoming "Flintstones" meal and tie-ins to television programs like "The Tick," "Street Sharks" and "The Mask." Taco Bell will spend about $3 million each month on kids meal ads.

"We have some catch-up to do so we're leveraging properties that already have equity with kids, properties with a little more edge than the vanilla Disney promotions," Mr. Gramaglia said.

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