Few national brands attract the level of cult-like devotion as Taco Bell. When the restaurant chain refurbished a hotel in its image a few years back, rooms quickly booked up, with fanatics and influencers flocking in from around the country. The company's enduring pull with consumers made its decision earlier this month to name a culture agency of record (AOR) a curious one: Why does a marketer ostensibly winning the pop culture wars — and performing well on the sales front — need additional outside help?
"People want to buy into something. They're not just buying a taco, they're buying into a community around that brand," said Barbara Yolles, chief executive of the woman-owned agency Ludwig+. "Brands who do well are constantly nurturing that. When times are good is when you should invest even more in it; you should never relax.
"There has to be a kind of relentlessness toward continuously improving, whether it's the community, the influencers or the product itself," she added.
Taco Bell selected Cashmere as its partner on all things culture, with the full-service agency tasked with seeking new outlets for the marketer to experiment beyond its established stakes in sports, fashion, gaming and music. Recent campaigns could key into some of those bets: A promotion around the return of limited-run menu favorite Nacho Fries earlier this summer was heavily inspired by Japanese anime and comics.
But like many marketers, Taco Bell is also contending with technology changes steeply accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. Consumers — particularly key young demographics — are cutting the cord and jumping to platforms like TikTok and Twitch that can be hard for brands to navigate and break out on.
"The evolution and shift in culture caused by new social and technology platforms, along with generations coming of age, particularly in the past year, has driven blue chip companies to engage partners fluent in social nuance," Taco Bell said in the Cashmere announcement.
On the operational end, ordering habits are similarly moving to digital channels, forcing quick-service restaurants to transform their business. Taco Bell is now testing store concepts that better accommodate mobile ordering and drive-thru. While some of these adjustments are category-specific, they're indicative of the pains legacy marketers are broadly experiencing as COVID-19 and direct-to-consumer disrupters continue to create headwinds.
"To gain market share with a mature brand is really hard," said Yolles, a former McDonald's marketer. "The categories now have indirect competition. When you have indirect competition, you've got to really create a buffer around your brand and your community more than ever. There's a shopping pattern and behavioral changes that are not going to go away."
Internal, external connection
Along with shifting the media landscape, the pandemic has thrown a harsh spotlight on where companies fail the public and employees, especially in areas like diversity and inclusion.
"The last couple of years have brought to life where culture is really strong or weak in a company," Yolles said.
"There's culture that creates and fuels a company and then there's the impact that a brand has on popular culture. There's two sides to that discussion. One drives the other."
Maintaining a strong internal culture and set of values can be essential to coming across as authentic to consumers externally, per Yolles. Cashmere, for example, will help to develop Taco Bell's cultural brand strategy as well as that strategy's integration throughout the organization. In a press statement, Taco Bell CEO Mark King added that Cashmere is "well-equipped to build authentic connections with diverse and multiethnic audiences."
"There's culture that creates and fuels a company and then there's the impact that a brand has on popular culture. There's two sides to that discussion," Yolles said. "One drives the other."
Turning to third-party services providers can be one way to ensure a brand's vision isn't too insular or misaligned with the messaging it's putting out into the world. Other agencies clearly see an opportunity to assist marketers in navigating their cultural journeys. Convicts, a creative shop backed by IPG Mediabrands, in May added the purpose agency of record title to its offering. It's another specialty area that could help agencies rebound as marketers struggle to connect with new demographics and pop on emerging platforms.
"Smart brands have always thought about the primary targets and the influencer targets and the secondary targets that drive their business," Yolles said. "But there's no question that that is more top of mind than it ever has been."