In the game of marketing, the NBA Finals matchup is Taco Bell vs. Chipotle
Chipotle Mexican Grill is trying not-so-subtly to connect its brand to the NBA Finals through ambush marketing while Taco Bell is back as an official sponsor with its own promotional plans.
As the Golden State Warriors return to the NBA Finals, this time to take on the Toronto Raptors, each Mexican-inspired chain wants to snag the attention of hungry fans with giveaway plans.
Chipotle says that each time an announcer says “free” during the main TV broadcast—free throw, anyone?—it plans to disclose codes on Twitter that are good for chances to score free burritos.
Since Taco Bell is the chain with official ties to the NBA, Chipotle had to be somewhat clever about the way it worded its offer. It took the attempt to the extreme, much like those advertisers that promote new campaigns that air during the “big game” without ponying up the cash to actually be NFL sponsors running Super Bowl ads. Rather than saying NBA Finals in its press release, Chipotle used phrases such as “the official coverage of the men's professional basketball championship series.”
It’s not as if Chipotle doesn’t know about Taco Bell’s official NBA partnership, which is entering its ninth year. In fact, Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol joined in 2018 after serving as Taco Bell’s CEO from 2015 to 2018, its president from 2013 to 2015 and, prior to that, its chief marketing and innovation officer. Meanwhile, Chipotle Chief Marketing Officer Chris Brandt was Taco Bell’s chief brand and marketing officer from 2013 until 2016, after serving as a VP of brand marketing from 2010 to 2013.
Both chains are trying to find new ways to capture the attention of diners, plenty of which could crave burritos or tacos while watching the games, even if fewer people tuned in last year.
"We know that basketball fans are some of the most passionate fans in sports, so we're putting even more—about one million dollars more—on the line by 'freeting' through these final games," Brandt said in a statement.
Chipotle’s offer is a bit of a game itself. The promo is only valid for the first 20 times the word “free” is uttered by the announcers during each game, with up to 500 giveaways for each utterance in the first half and up to 1,000 giveaways each time it’s said in the second half. Chipotle is working with Day One Agency on the project.
Chipotle is also offering free delivery through the series on orders of $10 or more, in a bid to promote delivery through its app, website and Doordash.
Meanwhile, Taco Bell is back with its “Steal A Game, Steal A Taco” offer for the fourth consecutive year. If a road team wins a game, fans win free Doritos Locos Tacos. The first “Steal a Game, Steal a Taco” happened in 2016, when the Warriors triggered a tacos windfall with a Game 4 win in Cleveland against the Cavaliers. Last year, the Warriors “stole” Game 3, also in Cleveland.
“We are flattered that imitators are following our lead, and are equally proud that our promotion is easy and accessible—if a game is stolen, everyone across America gets a free taco,” Taco Bell said in a statement to Ad Age.
While both chains offer Mexican-inspired fare, they aren’t exactly head-to-head rivals. Chipotle, which has been rebounding under its new leadership, is a fast-casual chain offering higher-priced items such as burritos and bowls. Meanwhile, a few bucks will get one plenty of tacos and chalupas at Yum Brands Inc.’s Taco Bell. Chipotle is the 12th-largest U.S. restaurant chain, with sales up 8.7 percent to more than $4.8 billion last year, while Taco Bell is the 4th-largest chain with 2018 systemwide sales up 5.8 percent to $10.36 billion, according to data from Technomic.
Taco Bell, which can use the NBA logo and make other mentions in its marketing, is already doing so in a TV spot promoting the offer that features clips of NBA stars.