On a chilly Wednesday morning in mid-March, I crawled out of bed, blindly threw on some clothes, and boarded a train to an immaculate Taco Bell near Madison Square Garden, where I consumed a horrifying 1,507 calories in a single sitting.
On the menu: Taco Bell's ambitious new roster of breakfast creations (which unrolls nationwide on March 27th), featuring a one-inch thick, egg and cheese-filled quesadilla called the A.M. Crunchwrap; tiny icing-filled pastries called Cinnabon Delights; and the fast food titan's new morning crown jewel—the Waffle Taco.
Targeting the morning crowd is a bold move for the Irvine, California-based fast food chain, particularly when you consider its target market of hungry millennials. Do college kids even wake up before noon? Recently, the company nixed its kids meals to focus on 18- to 34-year-olds exclusively. Its ad budget reflects this strategy, too: Of the $280 million the Yum Brand stalwart spent on ads in 2012, 20% was explicitly dedicated to digital media. "You have to go to these other screens," Taco Bell president Brian Niccol told Advertising Age last year, "because in the end, kids in college dorm rooms don't even have TVs, they're using laptops."
Indeed, Taco Bell's social media presence is formidable: 10 million Likes on Facebook (Chipotle has 2.2 million); 1.1 million followers on Twitter; 287,000 followers on Instagram. And, at the breakfast tasting the other morning—which left me with a crippling sodium hangover—that digital strategy was front and center. Here's what's fueling Taco Bell's big gamble on "firstmeal."
Create A Frankenfood People Can Relate To
Taco Bell's coma-inducing breakfast showcase begged the question: Why a waffle? Why not a tortilla? Or perhaps a pancake?
The decision to heap sausage, egg, and cheese into a folded waffle was, I'm told, a slow process many months in the making, part of a company-wide innovation initiative sparked by the overwhelming success of the Doritos Locos Taco. "We noticed that food mashups are very popular with our consumers," Taco Bell brand marketing director Adrienne Berkes told Fast Company. "We decided to go with the Waffle Taco because it provides a combination of both sweet and savory flavors, which is something we know people already enjoy," based on previous breakfast item tests the market research team had conducted.
At the same time, test markets in Fresno, Chattanooga, and Omaha had found that when it comes to breakfast, Americans prefer a menu that incorporates familiar morning foods like eggs, pancakes, syrup, and bacon.
As Taco Bell experimented with breakfast food in early 2012—the company declined to tell this reporter what exactly those experiments entailed—their test kitchen knew the perfect morning Frankenfood needed to strike the ideal taste balance between sweet and savory. It needed to feel and taste "traditional," while at the same time grabbing attention. "We knew waffles, pancakes, and things like that were great for the breakfast business," says Berkes. With the Waffle Taco, at least, "we knew we were heading in the right direction."
"Waffles are on trend though, right?" added Taco Bell brand marketing director Stephanie Purdue. "Chicken and waffles, entire concept restaurants."
Internally there was no "Eureka!" moment that convinced Taco Bell they should go with the Waffle Taco—but the company was encouraged when early customers seemed to really like it. "We heard from our customers, and, well, they love waffles," says Purdue. And if you get past its shape, the Waffle Taco flavor palette is rather unadventurous. Syrup is optional; if you remove it from the equation, you're left with what's essentially an open-faced McGriddle. Hewing close to established ideals of what breakfast is supposed to taste like was a deliberate strategy, one meant to keep consumers coming back for more once the novelty of eating a folded waffle wears off.
Packaging For Instagram
What really convince Taco Bell to bring the Waffle Taco to market was a blurry photo on Instagram.
According to the company, buzz preceding the Waffle Taco began long before the grand experiment made it to the market testing stage. "After [our test kitchen] showed us the Waffle Taco, we decided to put it in a local shop around the Irvine office," says Berkes. Local interest was piqued. One day in May 2013, a fan posted a photo of the mythical creation to Instagram, several months before market testing was set to begin.
Buzz about the syrupy unicorn snowballed from there. "She had like 87 followers, but before we knew it, it was all over the place," says Berkes. "A TV crew even showed up to one of our restaurants." The massive response to that photo solidified the Waffle Taco's path to market, says Berkes.
Indeed, Taco Bell packages many of its products with social sharing in mind, from the cutesy witticisms scrawled on its hot sauce packets to the loud and colorful sleeves of its Doritos Locos Tacos. The packaging on its new Waffle Taco is no exception. "We actually took the opportunity with the breakfast packaging to develop something that people want to take pictures of," says Berkes. "The different compartments of box have different sayings on them. Ultimately, it's so the products themselves have a voice."
Q: How do you get people to talk about your brand on social media? A: Target the famous people who already love you.
Last year, when model Chrissy Teigen professed her love for Taco Bell on Instagram (follower count: 454,000), the brand did something not many brands would do.
It pulled a Beyoncé and put a ring on it:
In anticipation of the Waffle Taco's release, to drum up buzz, Taco Bell mailed a handful of top secret "Breakfast Phones" to so-called influencers—that is, Internet celebrities with large follower counts. Like Mission Impossible, these burner phones issue secret missions and goofy challenges that recipients can pursue in order to win Taco Bell-branded swag, like hoodies and waffle-centric car fresheners. One such phone somehow found its way into the Fast Company offices.
Other recipients shared photos of the phones on their social media accounts, which helped spread word of the Waffle Taco's existence:
Marketing antics aside, diving into the breakfast biz is a risky gambit. The most daunting challenge for Taco Bell is convincing consumers that a fast food chain known for its melty nachos and gigantic sodas can seriously compete in the breakfast category. "People have a pretty go-to routine for breakfast," says Berkes. "The biggest challenge is sort of jarring people out of that. [We're trying to] break into that cycle."