Taco Bell believes that when teenagers don’t graduate from high school, potential goes to waste.
That notion is the cornerstone of a new marketing campaign launched Thursday, which the Irvine, Calif.-based quick-service operator hopes will inspire teenagers to graduate from high school and discover their passions.
The campaign is largely focused on social media, where teenagers live, built around the hashtag #RecognizePotential.
The goal is to start a conversation, said Amy Kavanaugh, Taco Bell chief public affairs officer, but the campaign also highlights a national fundraising effort across the chain’s 6,000 locations, in which guests are invited to add a dollar to their order to support the Taco Bell Foundation. The nonprofit has spent two decades working to improve graduation rates, with more than $75 million committed to scholarships and other initiatives since 1992.
I went to Taco Bell and donated a dollar to help a local teen graduate. When I was asked what name I wanted on the paper, I replied with "Nothing, it's fine." So that's exactly what she wrote! After an exhausting 11 hour work day I needed a good laugh and it was all for a great cause! @tacobell #tacobell #recognizepotential #donateadollar #helpateengraduate #laugh #facesoffoodservice
This year’s push is the largest yet, as the company attempts to “use its superpowers for good,” Kavanaugh said, to invest even more to inspire teenagers to finish school and draw attention to the issue.
On June 6, Taco Bell will celebrate National Graduation Day, offering free Doritos Locos Tacos to graduating teens who show their high school identification.
On June 10, the foundation will take over the Times Square billboard to spotlight around 600 teenagers that have accepted Taco Bell’s “Graduate for Más” challenge.
First launched in 2013, the Graduate for Más program invites students to make a pledge to finish high school and offers various incentives, tools, resources and inspiration to help them along that journey — including connecting them with potential jobs at Taco Bell as they reach their goals. The program is currently in about 1,200 schools across the country, and Taco Bell said roughly 350,000 students have made the pledge.
About 250 of those teens will receive $1,000 scholarships to pursue their passions. About 60 Graduate for Más pledges will be invited to the Times Square event, where they will meet Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol and participate in events.
Niccol said teens are important to Taco Bell, not just as potential customers, but also as employees.
By 2022, Taco Bell plans to open about 2,000 restaurants in the U.S., which will result in approximately 50,000 new jobs, according to Niccol.
“One in four of those jobs will go to teens,” he said.
Those teenagers will not just sell tacos, but will also be part of the brand’s effort to build community with each restaurant, Niccol said.
Thriving through creativity
As a father of three, Niccol said he is increasingly concerned that some teenagers are being left behind as education policies shift toward math and science fundamentals.
“Most recently, this big push in STEM, it’s a great thing in terms of fundamentals, but we’re starting to stamp out creativity,” Niccol said, referring to federal and state curriculum emphasizing science, technology, engineering and math. “We’re starting to stamp out the passion for innovation, and the idea of dreaming, which is counter to what makes America great.”
Many teens, however, might thrive in more creative endeavors, like music, art, writing or even gaming, Niccol said. Those teens may be looked at as “the other kid,” but they may be poised for greatness, too.
“All they may need is a mentor, a person to say it’s cool to be the other kid,” he said. “Taco Bell has always been the other restaurant. We’re unique in our own skin, and we’re excited to help teens be more comfortable in their unique skin.”
The best way to keep teenagers in school is to help them find something to be passionate about, Niccol said.
“We, as a country, have a huge problem on our hands when it comes to education and keeping kids excited, engaged and passionate about school,” he said.
Hamilton Brown, managing director of the Taco Bell Foundation, said schools are increasingly cutting arts programs altogether due to lack of funding.
And, while Taco Bell may not be able to fund a school district’s music or art program, the foundation can work with partners to help more students find opportunities to exercise their creative minds.
Few brands have taken on what Brown calls the “messy middle” of the teenage years, he said. But for a lot of teenagers struggling to stay in school, he said, “We may be the only support they have.”
On Twitter, the response to the campaign was largely positive.
Some, however, veered toward the sarcastic.
This story has been revised to reflect the following update:
Update: June 5, 2015 This story has been updated with a target year for Taco Bell's expansion goals.