“Do you eat Taco Bell regularly?” my friend asked, as I explained I was headed out to Taco Bell HQ the next day. The answer I gave her was that other than a stoner-tastic 9-month Chaulupa binge at the age of 19, no, I don’t actually ever eat Taco Bell. Part of that is proximity: there just aren’t many in DC. But the main reason is I try and avoid national fast food chains in general, unless I’m traveling or need an unexpected late-night meal and don’t have any better options. In fact, as I thought about it, I realized I probably hadn’t eaten Taco Bell since my trip to Taco Bell HQ almost three years ago.
But here’s my dirty little secret: I love Taco Bell. LOVE it. I don’t love actually eating the food on a regular basis, goodness no. But as someone who follows the restaurant/fast food world, I’m fascinated by the marketing/product strategies of companies like Taco Bell. Barely anyone is going to claim Taco Bell’s ingredients are higher quality than say, Chipotle. No one is going to dispute that you can’t get a better burrito or taco at a local taqueria. So why do I love them?
I love Taco Bell because it doesn’t care about any of your pretentious foodie bullshit. Where are your ingredients sourced from? What additives are being put in the beef? Is your sour cream made with BST free milk? Are your tomato pickers paid a fair wage? Shut it. Those are nerd questions that should only be asked by nerd food writers like me or uptight liberal locavores who couldn’t appreciate a 2 am Crunch Wrap Supreme if it hit them in the face. In case you couldn’t tell from the title of this blog post, THEY MADE A TACO OUT OF DORITOS.
Taco Bell knows the target market to go for: young, male, up-late and always looking for value. And dammit, they will pound this target demo into willful submission at any cost: barraging fast food fans with constant creations and deals. The $5 box, the Volcano menu, taco 12 packs, crunch wraps, chalupas & gorditas. The innovation of new products, packaging and combinations never stops. Hell, now it’s even open for breakfast.
You gotta respect the tenacity with which it goes after customers. Here’s what fascinates me about the fast food world: when everyone knows there are fresher, healthier or better tasting things to eat, either at other restaurants or at home in your kitchen, you have to appeal to consumers with other tactics. For most fast food chains, this is a combination of blow-your-mind cheapness (dollar menus, two-for-ones etc.) and constantly tweaking, re-working and innovating your food offerings. Every once in a while this results in a product that is so crazy and over-the-top you’re guaranteed to get tons of media coverage. I’m looking at you, Double Down.
Could you ever have imagined a more perfect new food offering for Taco Bell than a taco shell made out of Doritos? No, no you cannot. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or dozens of focus groups to realize that people that love Doritos are probably some of the same people that love Taco Bell. The word genius shouldn’t be thrown around lightly, but c’mon, when we’re talking product innovation, this idea is what it is: genius.
Taco Bell flew me and about a dozen other food bloggers to the HQ in Irvine, CA, put us up in a hotel for a night, and gave us an early look at the Doritos Locos Tacos before they are released nationally on March 8th. Another interesting marketing strategy. For probably the cost of a national TV commercial during a popular show, Taco Bell is able to help stoke online buzz by giving tastemakers, bloggers, hard-core fans and even the somewhat skeptical food writers an early look at a much buzzed about new product.
I occasionally get offered free stuff, ranging from as small as a coupon to as big as a flight to California. While it can be a smart way to generate buzz, it’s also a risky move. Even if I’m offered something for free, I have a pretty long history of not hesitating to rip something apart or ruthlessly mock the company. In this case, I did live-tweet the experience. It’s also a good chance for the company’s PR folks or CEO to hit you with all sorts of interesting facts about the company. For example, did you know Taco Bell was the first QSR to hire women general managers? Or that they were the first fast food chain to offer free drink refills and value menus? Or that 1 out of every 2 Americans eats at Taco Bell at least once a month? Fun facts alert!!!!!!!
So how was the Doritos Locos Taco? GrubGrade does it justice with a better review then I could ever write. My thoughts? It tasted like a taco with a Doritos shell. D’uh. I know that sounds ridiculously simplistic, but all the other components of a regular taco are there. It tastes more or less the same, you just get a bit of nacho cheese Doritos flavor in the shell. It’s not unnoticeable, but it’s also not earth shattering. The texture of the shell isn’t all that different from a regular one, although it does seem a tad crunchier. The Doritos shell is missing the air bubbles you typically see on some of the chips but the classic Doritos “dust” remains – although you don’t seem to get as much on your fingers as you do with a regular Doritos chip.
How I think it tastes really doesn’t matter though. This is all about branding – and a taco shell made from Doritos is a branding juggernaut. When I queried the Taco Bell marketing team on if this product might expand their appeal to new customers or how it fit in with their existing target demo, they called it a “fastball down the middle” for their existing target demo. They claimed that this is the most buzzed about product release they’ve ever seen, having already surpassed the crunch wrap release in 2006. Early signs would seem to indicate a huge success: in test marketing, 1 out of every 3 customers made a Doritos Locos Taco part of their order. That is HUGE.
So will the Doritos Locos Taco be a hit? Probably. They’re already manufacturing 85 million Doritos shells in anticipation. It’s a brilliant partnership between two of the most pro-stoner foods ever created. Even though the price is higher than for a regular taco (although the taste is only minimally different) people will spring for the Doritos taco shell because c’mon – YOU ARE EATING A TACO SHELL MADE OUT OF DORITOS!
The visit wasn’t just me grilling the marketing team on branding, product positioning and target demographics though. They let us escape from the PR pitch and get behind the line in the test kitchen to make our own creations. Here’s mine, a Double Decker taco with the Doritos hard shell and lava sauce in between. It’s a DDLDLT for short (Double Decker Lava Doritos Locos Taco).
They also got a bit silly, bringing a human-sized hot sauce packet out to cavort with us. Here’s me chillin with him and our buddy Ryan from GrubGrade playing some foosball:
So should you try the Doritos Locos Taco? Sure, go for it. But honestly, did you need me to say that? You probably fall into one of two camps, the “ugh, seriously Taco Bell? A Doritos taco shell? Gross.” Or “Oh. My. God. A taco shell made out of Doritos? I must try this immediately.” If you answered the latter, then you my friend, are the reason Taco Bell continues to innovate and come up with new food ideas in their never-ending quest to dominate the young male fast food market.
First photo courtesy of GrubGrade. Other photos courtesy of my below-average and super-old Pentax camera. Trip to California & food while in Irvine, CA courtesy of Taco Bell. My live-tweeting courtesy of my fingers typing on my iPhone, and, of course, Twitter itself. This blog post courtesy of my time, energy, typing skills & brain power, with an assist from WordPress.