Why Taco Bell Created A $1 Million Scholarship For Dreamers, Innovators, And Outsiders

CEO Brian Niccol talks about taking the idea of the scholarship beyond just academics and athletics.

Why Taco Bell Created A $1 Million Scholarship For Dreamers, Innovators, And Outsiders

Back on New Year’s Eve, during the two college bowl playoff games–the Orange Bowl and the Cotton Bowl–Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol thought this would be the perfect time to launch the TV campaign for its latest marketing initiative. A $1 million scholarship aimed at the kind of students who would have nothing to do with big time college football.


“We launched it during the BCS championship games, which we thought was a fun way to do it and make our point since everyone on that football field has a scholarship, and everyone on the couch doesn’t.”

The new Live Mas scholarship is aimed at young people who’s primary talents may reside outside academics and athletics, the two most common sources of college scholarship. The Taco Bell Foundation will be awarding 220 scholarships to deserving recipients, ranging from $2,500 to $25,000 each. To be eligible, applicants must create and submit a two-minute or less video that tells the story of their life’s passion.

For Niccol, the goal was to help broaden the personality of the Taco Bell business. “I think our brand does a nice job of being cool, current, creative and innovative, but the thing we probably haven’t done as good a job communicating with people is what we are on the cause front,” says Niccol. “Now we really do have that. It makes us better on how we develop our food, team, and experience, because this is a cause that communicates how we’re trying to make young people better. It’s part of the brand’s purpose. When you actually have a purpose that’s consistent with who you are, and also demonstrates how you’re trying to make a difference in the community, that’s how you get into the fabric of culture.”

The idea for the scholarship came from Chicago-based agency O’Keefe Reinhard & Paul, which enlisted the help of eight content creators including William Morris Endeavor, Vice Media, EA Sports, production studio Bow & Arrow, commercial production shop Hungry Man, to come up with ideas that went beyond traditional advertising.

“Whenever we bring in outsiders, or people who have specific talents or insights in the creative world, we tend to get things that don’t feel like advertising,” says chief creative officer Matt Reinhard. “A lot of the talent, content creators, and publisher-types are folks who live outside the realm of advertising but still had their finger on the pulse of culture.”

Ultimately, production studio Bow & Arrow’s idea for the scholarship was the winner. “We were going thru the ideas, all of a sudden these guys got up from Bow & Arrow and the opening board was ‘Why have scholarships gone to just academics and athletes?'” says Niccol. “And it just hits you how true that is. Many people who make a real impact on the world don’t fall neatly into those two boxes.”


Helping those young people with non-traditional talents or ambitions is a way for the brand to both build further ties with its young target demographic, but also embed itself within culture as it’s being created.

“There are a handful of things that drive culture–food, fashion, music, technology, sports–you need to figure out how your brand can show up in those places,” says Niccol. “And if you have a cause that carries across those cultural elements, to go with what’s cool and creative about your brand, then you’re in rare air.”

It’s only been a couple of weeks but Niccol says the applications have started to roll in. The scholarship’s virtuous cycle for the brand includes ready-made stories to tell once the winners are chosen.

“My hope is, whomever the winners are, we can highlight and share their stories,” says Niccol. “Teens and twenty-somethings are just so full of potential and sometimes they just need someone to say they believe in them. You’d be surprised what even just $10,000 or $20,000 can do. Ina way, it can change a person’s life.”

Related: I Built A Crazy Food Piñata At Taco Bell, Then Sold It To Somebody

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.