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sean tresvant and sam.jpg Photo courtesy of Alicia Kelso
Taco Bell's incoming CEO Sean Tresvant and Nation's Restaurant News' Editor-in-Chief Sam Oches share the stage at CREATE: The Experience.

Taco Bell’s Sean Tresvant: ‘If we’re not uncomfortable, we’re not pushing hard enough’

Taco Bell was awarded Nation’s Restaurant News’ Brand Icon Award Monday at CREATE: The Experience.

Taco Bell was awarded Nation’s Restaurant News’ Brand Icon Award Monday at CREATE: The Experience in Palm Springs, Calif., and Sean Tresvant, the chain’s current chief global brand and strategy officer and incoming CEO, was on hand to receive the trophy. He also provided a glimpse at his approach to marketing, which he honed throughout nearly two decades with Nike/Jordan Brand and which has been a key differentiator for Taco Bell throughout its 60-plus year history.

When Tresvant joined the QSR giant in 2021 his first line of business was finding out who Taco Bell’s consumer was.

“The first couple of months on the job, my mission was to understand who our consumer is so we can speak to them efficiently and effectively,” he said during a conversation with NRN Editor-in-Chief Sam Oches. “In my assessment, that’s how we go from being a great brand to an extraordinary brand.”

Tresvant said he adheres to four marketing philosophies that he will continue to lean into during his tenure at Taco Bell. They include:

  1. Fewer, deeper, bolder: “In this world, you have to break through. When I came to Taco Bell, we wanted to do a lot, but you had to make sure you were focusing on the biggest things with the biggest impact.”
  2. Be nimble. “The world is changing fast, the consumer is changing fast, technology is changing fast. You have to make sure you’re nimble and you can turn on a dime. The great companies are able to change at the pace of the consumer.”
  3. Hit people in the head and the heart. “I believe great QSR brands need to hit people in the head – functional, value, great operations – and great brands hit people in the heart, which is what keeps people coming back. To me, this is the most important.”
  4. Math and magic. “All great brands have some magic to make sure they’re relevant, but in this world of data, you have to embrace the math part, too.”

Tresvant said Taco Bell has a key advantage because of its authenticity. He pointed to the company’s recent campaign to liberate Taco Tuesday as an example, including the recruitment of Lebron James to help with the cause.

“How could a phrase as common and fun as Taco Tuesday be trademarked? That’s like trademarking ‘happy birthday,’” Tresvant said. “Lebron James, during Covid, was celebrating Taco Tuesday on social media, so we thought ‘let’s put those two things together’ not knowing what would happen. It was about the consumer, it was a big idea, and that’s what Taco Bell is known for.”

Tresvant said the company subscribes to the idea of “restlessly creative,” noting that it’s become a rallying cry across every department. The idea of restless creativity is to constantly think about how to take the brand to new and different places, he said.

“How do we continue to push the envelope forward and always drive creativity forward because creativity wins these days,” he said.

Tresvant acknowledged the daunting nature of leading a brand known for its “vibe” and its “cult following.” He intends to continue to prioritize those fans because “they’re the people who got us to where we are today.” One of the ways Taco Bell will do so is by featuring them more in social media content, alongside its partnerships with celebrities like Lebron James and Doja Cat.

He also wants to focus on bringing in new customers through different use cases, like breakfast.

“We like to sell to everybody. We have a lot of late-night equities, but we don’t want to only be a late-night brand,” he said. “We believe we’re a brand for all dayparts and we know we have to change the perception a little bit with our core audience that we’re only a late-night brand, so you’ll see some stuff coming to reinforce that.”

Tresvant is also prioritizing the experience, noting that consumers no longer just want to buy brands, they want to experience brands. Taco Bell will do this by putting digital first, whether it’s through social media, in the restaurant through kiosks or digital menu boards, or through the app.

“It all starts with digital. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to also have great experiences when you come to the counter. We want to make sure we’re creating experiences that are seamless across ecosystem across the brand. Whether that’s physical or digital, it all starts with the phone,” Tresvant said.

Tresvant ended his discussion by offering advice to smaller and emerging brands trying to find their own marketing muscle.

“No matter what size your brand, it’s knowing who you’re talking to. That’s the most important thing you can do. Second, how do you use tech to solve problems for the consumer or in the kitchen? Tech is going to be a separator of good brands and great brands,” he said. “Third, you’ve got to swing for the fences. I always tell my team, if we’re not uncomfortable, I’m not sure we’re pushing hard enough.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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