Taco Bell has appointed Brian Niccol as its chief marketing and innovation officer, a new position for the brand, parent company Yum! Brands Inc. said Thursday.
Niccol most recently served as general manager and previously chief marketing officer of Pizza Hut, which also is a division of Louisville, Ky.-based Yum. He replaces David Ovens, who stepped down as Taco Bell CMO  on Aug. 25.
In his new role, Niccol will oversee marketing and public relations, as well as menu research and development. He is expected to start on Oct. 24.
Niccol joins 5,200-unit Taco Bell as the quick-service chain turns to marketing and its menu to reverse negative same-store sales ahead of its 50th anniversary next year.
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The chain’s sales have suffered this year after a mostly positive 2010, and following a consumer lawsuit filed in January that questioned the contents of its seasoned ground beef . Same-store sales were flat in the first quarter, down 5 percent in the second quarter and down 2 percent for the third quarter, which ended Sept. 3.
Yum chief executive David Novak said during the company’s third-quarter earnings call that turning around Taco Bell’s sales would be key to improving the company’s U.S. results , and that Yum has a “breakthrough” product planned. By the end of the first quarter of 2012, Taco Bell expects to introduce a product that “reinvents the taco,” he said.
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The chain reportedly is testing in Southern California a taco shell made from nacho cheese-flavored tortilla chips.
A new product could give Taco Bell the opportunity to develop advertisements that focus on food, rather than the value ads that have dominated its marketing since the summer. New items like the Taco 12 Pack  were promoted in commercials with a value focus, and other advertisements over the past several months have promoted returning items like the 99-cent Chicken Flatbread Sandwich and the XXL Chalupa.
In May, the Taco Bell Franchise Management Advisory Council expressed concerns over the brand’s advertising strategy in a memo that, among other things, called for an agency review of DraftFCB, Taco Bell’s agency of record for several years. However, Taco Bell has not indicated plans to change agencies, and Novak has asked DraftFCB and the agencies of Pizza Hut and KFC to collaborate on ways to turn around Yum’s overall U.S. business.
Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell operates 1,240 restaurants and franchises another 3,960 locations in the United States.