Why Taco Bell's World Series Play Was a Steal

Chain Hits Homer With Relatively Low-Cost Promo

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Advertising buy: $5.6 million. Potential giveaway cost: under $1 million. Publicity value: priceless.

That could well be the marketing brief at Taco Bell, which scored a PR home run with the promise of a free taco to any American who wants one if a base was stolen in the World Series. Luckily for those hungry masses -- and relatively predictably if you're a baseball statistician -- Red Sox rookie Jacoby Ellsbury complied, stealing second base in the bottom of the fourth inning in the series' second game.
This is yours: Taco Bell's promotion gave every American a free taco.
This is yours: Taco Bell's promotion gave every American a free taco.

"Every year we're looking for a way to raise the bar," said Taco Bell spokesman Will Bortz, whose company has been a World Series Sponsor since 2002. "We started playing around with parts of the game where it would be natural to insert ourselves in and we started looking at stolen bases."

Long shot
Last year, the free-taco promotion was tied to a left-field homer during World Series play -- and it didn't happen. This year, the company decided to bet on a sure thing.

So how much did the promotion cost? A lot less than one might think.

Taco Bell isn't talking, and Fox Sports executives were unavailable at press time, traveling to Colorado for the next game. But according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, the fast feeder is one of the top 10 advertisers in the series, spending $5.6 million (General Motors Corp. is the heaviest hitter, at $13.2 million).

It's expected that figure includes all the extra airtime Taco Bell got on the broadcast -- plugs from TV anchors and sports figures about the promotion and a live interview with Rob Savage, chief operating officer of Taco Bell -- not to mention a mention of the promo from a player in a "candid" conversation between Sox shortstop Royce Clayton and Mr. Ellsbury the evening before the big steal.

'Pretty low-risk'
Of course, those are just buy-in costs; Taco Bell now has to put its tacos where its mouth is. Mr. Bortz said the chain is expecting "millions of Americans" to turn up Tuesday from 2 p.m. from 5 p.m. for free seasoned-beef crunchy tacos, which normally cost a whopping 77¢. Mr. Bortz wouldn't disclose costs, but even if the tacos -- as some analysts suggest -- are 20¢ to make, the cost wouldn't be outrageous. Even in the impossible scenario that half the U.S. population made a run for the border, Taco Bell's liability would be less than $30 million. But experts estimate it will cost a fraction of that -- less than $1 million.

"It's pretty low-risk," said Ron Paul, president of restaurant consultant Technomic. If each of 6,000 locations gives away three tacos a minute for about three hours, Mr. Paul calculated Taco Bell would give away a maximum of 3 million tacos. He estimated they cost Taco Bell about 20¢, making the maximum total cost about $700,000.

And of course, Taco Bell chose its hours and dates wisely -- the free taco giveaway is comfortably between the lunch and dinner hours. The company said it didn't take out any insurance on the promotion, which indicates it wasn't concerned about financial risk.

Washing down the tacos
But even if the multitudes really do turn out, it could be a boon for the Bell. After all, people will need a higher-margin soft drinks to wash down their freebies. Besides, Taco Bell has been handing out free food on a national and regional basis for years, so its franchisees are well-versed in ways to make the most of increased foot traffic.
Taco Bell's USA Today ad promising free tacos
Taco Bell's USA Today ad promising free tacos

"Once you're in there, you're going to get more than a taco," said Wally Hayward, CEO of Relay Worldwide, who has worked with McDonald's on food giveaways related to the Olympics. He said the events were very successful in increasing traffic and driving sales.

"The exposure is minimized because they restrict the hours, and they count on the drinks that help offset the cost of the food they're giving away," Mr. Paul said. "And you get people in your store who haven't been there in a while."

In the meantime, the promotion appears to be paying off in talk value -- at least online. According to Nielsen BuzzMetrics' BlogPulse, which measures online chatter, the percentage of blog posts including the phrase "Taco Bell" has nearly doubled to .06% since the promotion was announced Oct. 22 and increased roughly 33% since Mr. Ellsbury's taco-clinching swipe.

Getting people talking
"It's definitely driving the conversation," said Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer of Nielsen BuzzMetrics. "It generates some mystique because there's a legitimate question about whether they can pull it off."

And it's hard to argue with good buzz.

"It's always smart to stand outside of the 30-second spots and activate consumer behavior," said Heidi Singleton, creative director, Zipatoni. "There are a lot of 30-second spots, but what's going to get them to act? To talk?"

It's also good news, for once, for the taco chain, which has in the past two years weathered scandals related to an E. coli outbreak and a rat infestation at a New York City store. While Yum Brands is doing well, particularly with its expansion of KFC and Pizza Hut into China, Taco Bell has lagged. However, the chain is in the midst of redesigning its stores, and free tacos may be the perfect way to get people in the door.

But it could also be a lotta nada.

Not all fans
"I felt that it was pretty flat-footed and also extremely expected at this point," said Jon Maurice, senior partner at interactive marketing agency Drive. "I don't know how many of these we've seen, but it's kind of like, 'Insert quick-service-restaurant brand here.'" He added that Fox's treatment was "heavy-handed" and Mr. Savage's performance left much to be desired.
Free tacos for everyone! Red Sox rookie Jacoby Ellsbury steals second base in the second game of the World Series.
Free tacos for everyone! Red Sox rookie Jacoby Ellsbury steals second base in the second game of the World Series. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Taco Bell isn't the only company trying to give away stuff tied to the World Series. On an admittedly smaller scale, Jordan's Furniture, a chain with five locations in Massachusetts and New Jersey, will give away beds, sofas and sectionals if the Sox cinch the Series. The catch: You had to buy them last spring.

But those who stand to gain aren't complaining.

"We were looking for bedroom furniture, and it just so happened to fall in the time when they were having their 'monster deal,'" said Erin Leif, who stands to be reimbursed for her bed if the Sox pull it out. "They said if the Sox win the Series you'll get the bed free, but it seemed so far away. And now it looks like they really are going to win."

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Contributing: Jeremy Mullman
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