Underdog vs. Chihuahua in Mexican chain battle

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Distant No. 2 taco chain Del Taco is thumbing its nose at Goliath Taco Bell Corp. in a pair of new TV spots that break today.

The spots by G&M Plumbing, Santa Monica, Calif., tout the regional taco chain's Big Fat Crispy Chicken Taco using the "I've got something you don't" approach with plucky defiance. The new tacos were launched to compete with Taco Bell's gorditas line.

The spots feature Del Taco's self-effacing product development character, Dan. In one spot, Dan pickets his competitor's monolithic headquarters carrying a massive photo of the new taco, but collapses from exhaustion. In the second spot, when Dan unveils a giant sign of the new taco just outside the building, a large truck pulls up and blocks his sign from view.

Both spots were shot June 8 under an agreement with the Screen Actors Guild, said Tim Hackbardt, VP-marketing at Del Taco.

`SOUL OF THE BRAND'

The spots were born out of a creative strategy that sought to "communicate the soul of the brand, target the heavy fast-food user and not offend women," Mr. Hackbardt added. The chain earlier had been criticized for a 1997 spot from Italia/Gal, Los Angeles, that featured a bikini-clad woman.

"We're the scrappy No. 2 brand," Mr. Hackbardt said. "We like to view ourselves as the little brother who keeps pestering the sister's slumber party. The marketing strategy is to focus on what Taco Bell doesn't offer and to communicate those differences very clearly.

"We have it, they don't. Give it a shot, that's all I'm asking," he said. "What better way to communicate that than in front of their headquarters?"

The Dan character had been absent from recent spots, and it is still unclear whether he'll become the company's official spokesman.

"If we're getting good feedback, I wouldn't rule it out," Mr. Hackbardt said. "We felt he really fit this role."

Mr. Hackbardt joined Del Taco in December from Eugene, Ore.-based Taco Time, where he was VP-marketing.

RUNT VS. BIG DOG

Taglines are absent from the spots. "We just want you to remember what the product was. We just end with the product and the logo, so you know where to buy it," Mr. Hackbardt said.

The spots will rotate in four-week flights mostly in spot buys in prime-time and prime-access programming in five southern California markets, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. A radio campaign will run in five western cities.

The 360-unit taco and burger restaurant chain is considered a runt compared to big dog Taco Bell, which boasts more than 7,000 units. While the privately held Del Taco won't disclose revenue, the chain had total sales of $288 million for 344 units in 1999, up 8% from 1998's figure for 325 units, according to researcher Technomic.

Mr. Hackbardt said sales figures quoted by Hoovers, which showed 1998 sales at $325 million, were "closer to accurate."

Media buys for Los Angeles are handled by Carat, Los Angeles; all other markets are handled by Paradise Media, Eugene, Ore.

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