Despite some challenges in 2020 — a 0.4% drop in year-over-year sales and some major menu trimming initiatives — Taco Bell grew its physical portfolio by 3.4% and achieved pandemic-era success by rolling out interactive and customizable technology.
Last summer, the company introduced a new rewards program geared toward rewarding superfans and debuted a Go Mobile store prototype to emphasize off-premises options. Both new initiatives balanced the speed of convenience technology with playful branding that emphasized social engagement. This balance set Taco Bell apart from other competitors that were also early adapters of COVID-era digital-technology must-haves.
“Our customers love the brand, and they crave the food … but they also want it to be highly personalized and customized to them,” said Zip Allen, vice president of global digital and omnichannel product experiences at Taco Bell. “When you look at launches like the Build Your Own Cravings box … it really gets exciting for us when we think about that intersection that digital can play in both the food and the physical experience.”
Technology, Allen said, is a tool for Taco Bell to use to continue growing and pushing the limits of innovation. Last year, the pandemic gave Taco Bell the opportunity to accelerate its plans to be “more consumer-first, more digital-forward” to address the “permanent shifts in consumer behavior” as a result of the pandemic, she said.
One strong example of that was the launch of the new rewards program in July 2020, which was an idea circulating on Reddit’s fast-food community groups of something that Taco Bell fans really wanted.
As Taco Bell launched the program, it was supposed to stand out from competitors by giving exclusive access to new and exciting deals, as well as menu innovations exclusively for rewards programs members, as an incentive for fans to get involved, Allen said. For example, in Feb. 2021, Taco Bell introduced the $5 Build Your Own Cravings box, which let customers pick from a selection of appetizers, entrees, drinks and desserts to build their own combo meal.
“We know that our fans can't wait to get their hands on the next innovation from Taco Bell,” she said. “I think the role of feeling appreciated and recognized for being a fan is something that is so powerful, especially for a brand like Taco Bell. You have people that are getting married at Taco Bell and taking their prom pictures at Taco Bell and getting tattoos of the brand. You want to make sure that you're giving them that elevated personal and special experience.”
Since launching the loyalty program last summer, Taco Bell has seen double-digit increases in visits and customer spend, particularly with digital orders.
The other major initiative Taco Bell launched last year was the Go Mobile store prototype with a double drive-thru lane, curbside pickup and smaller footprints. Of course, these new store prototypes were a significant trend in the second half of 2020 as almost every major restaurant chain scrambled to accommodate customers’ increasing needs for ease and convenience, especially during COVID-19 when dining rooms remained shuttered.
“What's been consistent is that ease, convenience and value are so important,” Allen said. “The technology really has to drive against those questions of ‘How do you drive convenience?’ and ‘How do you drive value in the experience and the role that personalization plays in executing that vision?’ That is really the foundation for how we think about technology.”
Moving forward, Taco Bell will continue to live at the crossroads of digital convenience and in-person experience, and balance the classic creativity of its brand with the growing demand for digital engagement.
“We really pivoted as an organization, and kept that innovative spirit going,” Allen said.
Contact Joanna at [email protected]
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- Hear the full interview with Zip Allen
- 2021 Top 500 countdown: The 50 biggest restaurants in America
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