As we've talked about on Kitchenette, McDonald's and other large fast food chains have been having a rough time of it lately, especially compared to fast casuals like Chipotle and Panera. Yet there's one chain that, by all appearances, seems completely immune to the trendline: Taco Bell.
Taco Bell's same-store sales may have only increased by 3% last quarter, but compare that to McDonald's sales falling by 4.6% and it becomes pretty clear who's winning that battle. While McDonald's is flailing, Taco Bell is planning to expand by 1300 international locations by 2023 (to say nothing of domestic stores) in the UK, Korea, Chile, India, Peru, Japan, Thailand, and Poland.
Then earlier today, this dropped across my desk:
One billion Doritos Locos Tacos. Think about that for a second. People have now consumed one freaking BILLION crunchy magic chemical taste-sand sheafs.* If you can think of a sentence that better encapsulates America, I'd love to hear it.
So how the hell are they doing it? That sentence isn't a rhetorical construction: I'm genuinely wondering how the hell Taco Bell is pulling this off. Their food, while admittedly (and inexplicably) delicious, has all the objective quality of roadkill and the nutritional value of oven cleaner.** Their pricing is also way higher than people seem to think; getting a full meal is at least as expensive as Chipotle at this point, since their actual value meals are far less quantity for your dollar than a Chipotle burrito. Yet people are eating it like crazy. Why?
One answer might lie in a somewhat unexpected place: marketing. Taco Bell exhibits an adroitness for leveraging their product that borders on the absurd. They're also geniuses when it comes to social media marketing, and are routinely regarded as the best company in the social media game. It's pretty well known that whoever runs their Twitter account is goddamned hilarious, but it's not just that, as Taco Bell shows an affinity for creative marketing tactics that somehow never feel as contrived as logic dictates they actually are.
A lot of this seems to come down to an uncommon understanding of what they are as a company: Taco Bell's food is objectively crap, and they know it's objectively crap, but it's also really freaking tasty crap, and that's the tack they take with their ads. While McDonald's scrambles to show how healthy they are or how McRibs are not made of asshole meat or how their food really does decay like normal organic matter, no seriously you guys, (lines of argument which absolutely no one is buying, not even if they bring in a Mythbusters B-Teamer as a delivery vehicle), Taco Bell runs ads like this one. They also drop tweets like this in response to customers who mock them for having the culinary creativity of a drunk person:
It's no surprise that focusing on the positive and deflecting mockery with self-deprecating humor rather than defending themselves from accusations has worked out for Taco Bell.*** "Come on, don't think about whether this is really a good idea, you know it'll be awesome" is a remarkably effective advertising tactic, which is why it's so commonly utilized by drug dealers. "Isn't this gross shit delicious?" Taco Bell's ads ask with a rakish grin. "Never mind what's in it. You know it'll taste fucking great. Just one taste."
The other aspect to Taco Bell's success is probably their endearingly weird creativity when it comes to inventing new menu items. I'm convinced they have a lab of blindingly stoned 20-somethings ready at all times to spit out new ideas — that's the only explanation I can think of for the Waffle Taco. Whatever the source, Taco Bell is consistently able to come up with food ideas that simultaneously horrify and intrigue, which is a hell of a recipe for fast-food promotion. In terms of raw ingredient quality, they're objectively no better than McDonald's, but while McDonald's stumbles around, drunkenly punting out the same shit we've seen for decades, Taco Bell's organizational philosophy seems to be "can we make it crazier?" Even when their "new" menu items seem pretty ordinary ("rolled chicken tacos" are just taquitos, dammit), their track record of weird culinary mad science has earned them enough cachet that we're collectively willing to just go with it even if we know it's bullshit; next time I find myself at a Taco Bell, I'm absolutely ordering the rolled chicken tacos.**** McDonald's most recent notable idea of fast food innovation, for comparison, was chicken wings.
Speaking as a food writer, Taco Bell's weirdness is a godsend. Bless you, you crazy pseudo-food purveyors, you — you shall forever possess a place in my heart.
* If you have any regard for comedy, you will click that link right the hell now. That's my single favorite thing that has ever been published on Kinja.
** I am thoroughly convinced the fact that the food actually tastes good is the result of dark magic.
*** They're also smart enough to winkingly refer to their food as "Mexican-inspired" rather than the laughably inaccurate "Mexican" or even "Tex-Mex." Taco Bell knows damn well what it is.
**** Or if they happen to have come up with something even weirder by then, I'm totally going with that.
Image via Taco Bell/Facebook.