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5 of the wildest, craziest advertising and marketing stunts we've seen at Taco Bell

February
13, 2021

8 min read

The opinions expressed by the entrepreneur's contributors are their own.

Taco Bell is one of the most popular consumer brands in the US and a name practically every American knows for its distinctive dining options. "Taco Bell is unique in the sense that it doesn't have a huge competitor in this space," said Benjamin Lawrence, professor of franchise entrepreneurship at Georgia State University, in our article on the company topping the 2020 Franchise 500 ranking .

This year, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, Taco Bell retains its top spot in Entrepreneur's 2021 Franchise 500 ranking. The advantage of being in a "category of one" seems to persist strongly.

It's also noteworthy that Taco Bell has a clear understanding of its target market – millennials. As it shifted its target customers from family guests to working and job-seeking millennials, it continuously innovated and delivered improved customer experiences. Taco Bell took digitization so seriously that it was the first fast-food restaurant to offer an order and prepayment program via a mobile app.

"There's no one out there like us," said then vice president of technology, Rafik Hanna, in a keynote presentation at the ICX summit in Dallas. "We march to the beat of our own drum. Innovation and creativity are part of our DNA."

Related: How Taco Bell Is Becoming the Most Innovative Franchise in the World

But enough of Taco Bell's story. Given the company's top franchise quotes, it's worth revisiting five of the most creative, attention-grabbing marketing campaigns Taco Bell has run to date. The company founded by Glen Bell in California is not only characterized by its relatively unique position in the fast food market. It also has a knack for some of the craziest and wildest marketing stunts out there. Let's count down their five best lunatics.

1. Rubble field game on the Pacific

Russia's modular Mir space station was due to be deorbitated on March 23, 2001. The Taco Bell marketing team took advantage of this global event to launch a ridiculously impressive drive.

The company set up a gigantic floating target board in the Pacific where Mir's debris was supposed to fall. According to the promo mechanic announced, everyone in the US would be eligible for a free Taco Bell Taco if any part of the space station landed on the floating target board.

This stunt was extremely risky to the company's finances, so Taco Bell took out a sizeable insurance policy to cover the potential cost of giving away more than 280 million free tacos. The insurer estimated the cost to be around $ 10 million.

I burned myself into the earth's atmosphere so that no part of the space station reached the floating target. Taco Bell won the risky gamble when it received worldwide media coverage for the stunt, increasing brand awareness and sales.

2. Steal a base, steal a taco

In 2007, Taco Bell launched another free Taco-for-Everybody promo related to the World Series. This time, the likelihood of Taco Bell “losing” and “winning” customers was dramatically higher. Taco Bell announced that everyone in the US would get free tacos if a player from one of the participating teams stole a base in the World Series.

Boston Red Sox's Jacoby Ellsbury managed to steal a base in Game 2 of the 2007 World Series. The company kept its promise and gave away tacos to American customers on October 30, 2007.

Taco Bell apparently realized that the promo to give free tacos to all Americans doesn't cost as much as they previously projected in the Mir space station stunt. Not everyone goes to a Taco Bell store and asks the price. The company has also set a limit of one taco per person and a duration of 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. for the use of the free taco.

The company decided to run the same marketing campaign for several other World Series events, most recently in 2020 when Mookie Betts stole a base from Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1. This was the ninth time Taco Bell gave away free tacos.

3. The Hoax Coax

In mid-2012, Taco Bell found out about a hoax in Bethel, Alaska, claiming the company was about to open in the city of just over 6,000 residents. The company made it clear it wasn't and went further by doing something that the national media and social media websites would sure be reporting on.

Taco Bell's Irvine franchise sent a Taco Bell truck into the remote city in a helicopter. The truck had enough ingredients to make up to 10,000 tacos. It carried hundreds of pounds of beef, sour cream, tomatoes, lettuce, and cheddar cheese.

Today there are no plans to open a Taco Bell franchise in Bethel. However, the well-received act was sure to be remembered by those in Alaska, some of whom said it was the first time they tried tacos again in decades. The story continues to appear online in various publications.

4. Pop up hotel with unlimited free tacos

Before Covid hit, Taco Bell successfully launched another advertising campaign that met with great interest. In May 2019, the company announced the opening of a pop-up hotel in Palm Spring, California. The fully furnished Taco Bell-themed hotel was only supposed to be open for four days and offers guests the guarantee of unlimited free tacos.

In less than two minutes the hotel was booked up. Rooms started at $ 169 a night. The hotel had a salon as well as a gift shop selling Taco Bell-themed clothing and other merchandise.

Taco Bell again received free media coverage with many online news sites and at least one television station containing the story. The headlines specifically focused on how the ephemeral pop-up hotel sold all of its vacancies in minutes, and showed how many customers are interested in the brand.

5. The Taco Liberty Bell of April Fools' Day

Back in 1996, when internet penetration wasn't that high and there was no social media, Taco Bell was already showing an affinity for viral marketing. The company launched an April Fool's Day joke that turned out to be a bit controversial, but somehow worth it for free media coverage.

On April 1, 1996, the company published an ad in the New York Times with the bold statement, "Taco Bell is buying the Liberty Bell." The rest of the ad, expressing the company's delight in purchasing one of the symbols of American independence, said, "It is now referred to as the 'Taco Liberty Bell' and is still open to the American public."

The prank advert resulted in thousands of people calling Philadelphia National Park to complain about the sale of the national treasure. Taco Bell eventually revealed the joke. The Hullabaloo was a win-win for the company as its revenue increased by $ 500,000 on the day of the stunt and by $ 600,000 the day after. The entrepreneur regards this as one of the most successful marketing stunts of all time.

Viral marketing is said to have started in the mid-1990s. Taco Bell is probably one of the earliest users of this advertising strategy, as the prank ad shows. The company has since continued to use this style of indirect advertising and has done so successfully.

Related: Taco Bell is partnering with Beyond Meat to create a new plant-based protein

Initiative to adopt great ideas

What makes Taco Bell different in its approach to viral marketing, however, is a willingness to try explosive ideas that others have not tried before or are afraid to try. Rather than fear of the possible backlash, the company explored new concepts that many would likely find ridiculous, but which they would inevitably pay attention to.

Taco Bell knows how to get people to talk about its brand. For the company, the goal seems to be to start something that people will notice and discuss, rather than starting creative campaigns that will eventually go viral.

This is in line with the company's focus on targeting millennials. In the age of widespread internet access and social media, Taco Bell admits that the traditional advertising styles of fast food chains that distribute flyers and run print and billboard ads are no longer as effective as they used to be.

Taco Bell understands its market and knows how to use social media. "I believe our brand is a brand that drives culture," said Brian Niccol, President of Taco Bell, in an interview with Entrepreneur.

Modern culture is largely shaped by social media and the online world. With its strong presence on social media, Taco Bell ensures that it attracts the attention of its potential customers, while banking on free reporting and the benefits of word-of-mouth marketing over the internet. Taco Bell is considered a social media superstar with more than 10 million Facebook likes and almost 10 million followers, more than 1 million Twitter followers and hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram.

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