CASE STUDY: How Taco Bell rocks it on social media (and what you can learn from them)

Alina Gorbatch
by Alina Gorbatch on July 12, 2017

Taco Bell is an American chain of fast-food restaurants based in California, a subsidiary of Yum! Brands, Inc. They serve tacos, burritos, quesadillas, nachos, and all that to more than 2 billion people at around 7000 restaurants. Taco Bell is the rockstar of social media marketing. McDonald’s and Burger King would probably sell their fast-food souls to have Taco Bell’s social media success. And it’s not even about millions of followers they have. It’s about the level of engagement, the number of conversations their every social media move produces, and the loyal customers they attract through social media presence.

Taco Bell exists on every major social media platform, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Google Plus, Tumblr, Pinterest, Reddit, Snapchat and even Vine. They post regularly on every network, engage with customers, receive and reply to complaints, and have fun as if social media is all that matters in this world. So what underlies their strategy? How did they get to have the brand pages they have and what can we do to be a bit more like Taco Bell?

1. Taco Bell found their brand personality.

None of Taco Bell’s competitors have a brand voice as strong and recognizable as Taco Bell. How did they do this? Firstly, they’ve defined their target demographics (young, active, impulsive) and settled on the brand image according to it. Taco Bell now has a witty sense of humor and edge that attracts their exact target audience. They act like an old friend: they love banter, jumping on random conversations about tacos, emojis and memes. And they’re not faking it: this behaviour is absolutely authentic. Here’s what Tressie Lieberman, former director of digital marketing experience at Taco Bell, said about this:

“The work we do works because it connects with the fan. It’s built to the audience. The biggest piece of advice I would give is it comes back to being human and being true to yourself. Start with the brand and lean in and be authentic to who you are.”

But that’s a kind of general advice shy guys get at high school: “Just be yourself”. It might be good if you’re looking for that one person to fall in love with you, but if you’re aiming for millions?.. Nick Tran, former social media lead at Taco Bell, told how they pulled off this personality and became so attractive to the target audience. Here’s what he said:

“Our method is hiring Millennial-minded individuals because they live and breathe social media. The digital natives entering the workforce today are passionate about social; by having them dispersed throughout our teams, we are staying on the forefront of trends… Then everyone in the organization contributes to this sort of “think tank” or social center of excellence.”

This led among other things to hilarious viral exchanges, such as this one:exchange

2. Taco Bell went real time.

Having started like pretty much everyone else in the field, with brand pages being used mainly for product promotions, at some point Taco Bell has turned everything around. Firstly, they’ve started engaging with customers in real time, and that’s a bigger shift than it seems. As Nick Tran said:

“The main difference in strategy now vs. before is that what we are doing today in social media is real-time, and we listen and engage all the time.”

Each of their replies is personal – there’s no Ctrl+C/Ctrl +V in their social media strategy. The relationship Taco Bell builds on social media is as humanistic and real as possible. They use replies, retweets, and favorites as a way to show they are not a huge mindless corporation – they’re your quirky friend that always has some tacos.

Secondly, they came up with a content strategy. It can be broken down into three categories:

Let’s stop at the second point. Winston Binch, chief digital officer that worked with Taco Bell, points out that businesses often connect with influencers that have big fan bases but aren’t connected to the brand in any meaningful way. That’s why Taco Bell befriends brand lovers instead. Not only do they connect with them online, they also give them access to their products before the official release! That’s what every fan values.

Thirdly, they jump on existing hashtags and trending topics. For example, when #IfWeGoOutJustKnow was trending, Taco Bell replied with “my Taco Bell order by heart”. And to #10ThingsIGetAlot they tweeted “Do you sell bells?”, which is not only funny but also shows that they don’t take themselves seriously at all. Despite their popularity and money, they’re a brand that can be easily confused with a shop that sells bells, apparently.

3. Taco Bell is risky and insanely creative.

Taco Bell’s campaigns go viral far more often than it usually happens to companies. Let’s break down why. Firstly, they seem not to be afraid of anything. For example, they’re marketing on Reddit. Every social media marketer out there knows that Reddit is a risky space: no one out there likes marketers. Redditors often make fun of people who try to sell things by appearing to be their friend, and they ban users vigorously. Yet Taco Bell is alive and well.taco reddit

Most of their marketing campaigns are bold and different from everything you’ve seen before. When it comes to standing out on social media, Taco Bell marketers are pros. Here’s one of their most successful social media campaigns:

Taco Bell had to promote their new mobile ordering app. With everyone making noise on social media, and Taco Bell themselves being normally active and engaging, it wouldn’t work for them to just start talking about their new app. No one would notice. So Taco Bell did the opposite: they switched off their social media channels. All of them. Leaving only one phrase. It looked like this:taco black 2

taco black1

This made sure their fans were the first ones to see the new app. The success on the campaign was enormous: the app became the most downloadable one in the App Store’s “food and drink” category. Just 24 hours after launch, 75% of all stores had processed a mobile order. According to the App Annie intelligence site, the app became the 22nd most downloaded among the iOS users in the United States, which is bigger than Google Maps, Twitter and Gmail. The marketing agency behind this campaign made a more detailed (and touching in a weird way) video about the campaign:

Anything as creative is hard to come up with. It teaches us that sometimes you have to go in the opposite direction to stand out.

Another marketing campaign that went (and is still going) absolutely viral is all about emojis. It started with Taco Bell figuring out that there is no specific emotion for a taco. Shame! So they’ve started a petition on It happened 33 000 signatures later. And then Taco Bell did something even more massive: they’ve invented a ‘Taco Emoji Engine’ built directly into Twitter to celebrate the introduction of official taco emojis. The engine works like this: people who tweeted the taco emoji with another emoji at the brand’s account are sent back a photo or GIF mashing up the two images. Like this:

taco engine

You can imagine how much their engagement increased! If you can’t, here are some numbers: the brand received more than half a million tweets in the first five days.

Taco Bell also loves to announce their new items in the always new, sometimes bizarre ways. For example, they introduced the Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos via a six-second Vine. Why Vine? In all honesty, I couldn’t say. But surely their Vine followers felt honoured. Sometimes they allow people to pre-order the secret menu item online prior to the big reveal. People pre-order even though they don’t know what it is! These moves keep their customers curious and engaged, which is the ultimate goal.

Overall, Taco Bell stands out because:

a) They know that brand recognition can’t be taken for granted and constantly work on that;

b) They have a consistent identity that underlines their every move on social media, and that is in line with the identity of their target audience;

c) Every now and then they come up with amazingly creative social media campaigns.

Not sure how to act on social media? Be more like Taco Bell!

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