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Trendsetters: Taco Bell's CMO Marisa Thalberg Provides the Secret to Successful Marketing Now
Anyone who has heard Marisa Thalberg speak about Taco Bell's energetic, multi-tiered marketing program immediately recognizes her passion for branding and the role it plays in contemporary culture. An intelligent woman with a wry sense of humor, she has been named a brand genius, built an organization for executive moms while managing her day job and family, and is clearly someone who can operate on all cylinders. While some in the industry may have thought her transition from the glamour of beauty marketing to the retail whirl of QSR (Quick Service Restaurants) was a stretch, she has proved to be perfect for Yum! Brands' distinctive ideals and the company's growing global cachet.
A good marketer takes lessons from everywhere; a great marketer carefully studies successes, then understands how to reinvent them with greater contemporary relevance. Marisa Thalberg has done this. And while speaking at the ANA's Brand Masters conference last month, she raised questions about living in a world of paradox to illustrate the need to build a mass brand, while acting like an indie, cult one. In doing so, she uncovered the power of marketing for all brands in an era fueled by the influential significance of social media and the continued need for scale. And while not every brand's largest target is hungry, 19-year old college students, a very wise marketer once reminded me that no brand suffers from being cool.
Without question, the heart of Taco Bell's success is rooted in being effectively mass while driving a cult-like fan base-- often through "insider humor" that still manages to respect and even elevate the customer. To do this in the unforgiving world of QSR, where the unchanging fundamentals are fast, available and affordable, is an extraordinary feat. Marisa Thalberg makes it sound simple by saying, "For Taco Bell it's always been about offering an amazing value proposition, food creativity and brand creativity.
An interesting example of the mass-cult marketing balance was last year's launch of the Quesalupa, a new Taco Bell menu offering that could be described as a quesadilla–chalupa hybrid stuffed with cheese. A Quesaupa launch ad debuted at the Super Bowl. Called "Bigger than Everything," the spot spoofed trending fads like hoverboards, Tinder, and drones, to show off (of course) the universal, macro-importance of the new Quesalupa. However, the idea of "Bigger than Everything" was teased in a "redacted" press release one day prior to the Big Game by offering the Quesalupa to die-hard fans who pre-ordered via the Taco Bell app. Without knowing anything about the product—the release was redacted after all, Taco Bell fans came through with 71,000 "blind pre-orders. The fans loved that they were in on the joke, and had a laugh about #biggerthaneverything.
Another terrific example that respects fans and brand value is the Taco Bell "Feast for $1 All Day" program. Perhaps an homage, or at least a wink, to Marisa Thalberg's beauty and fashion past, the commercial is elaborately shot as a Renaissance feast—complete with a svelte Henry VIII and women with funky modern nail polish and tiaras made of forks-- for that constant indie, tongue-in-cheek effect with fans.
Interestingly, this lowest price offering is among the most elevating pieces of communications from Taco Bell. Food for a dollar is presented as a luxury brand. Calling it her "anthem," Marisa Thalberg says, "We all want value, not just something cheap. When you want something, and can have it, because you can afford it—that's extremely satisfying. And it's true at any price point. This is part of delivering on our value without comprise." And while "Feast for $1 All Day" speaks to a broad audience about value, there are enough fan cues in the spot to bring out the cult connection.
In keeping with Taco Bell's brand ethos of encouraging its fans to "Live Más," or pursue their passions, the company has even announced a commitment to wedding bells. Taco Bell's new flagship restaurant on the Las Vegas Strip now allows couples to order a wedding right off the menu. Marisa Thalberg calls it, "the most crave-able matrimonial experience to ever hit Vegas." Apparently, as Millennials opt for a personal spin on tradition, tying the knot at Taco Bell is becoming a fun and unique way to create a new wedding experience.
The wedding package includes a Sauce Packet wedding bouquet, a Taco Bell garter and bow tie, "Just Married" t-shirts, plus Taco Bell champagne flutes and a Cinnabon Delights Wedding Cake. And for the first wedded meal, the couple can share a Taco 12 Pack. At $600, this Vegas Taco Bell menu item includes a ceremony and support from Flora Pop, a company that specializes in pop-up weddings. Marisa Thalberg adds, "We've known that customers incorporate Taco Bell into post wedding festivities, so this makes the entire program more fun."
Before being named CMO in January 2016, Marisa Thalberg joined Taco Bell as Chief Brand Engagement Officer in 2015. Prior to her move to Taco Bell's Irvine, California offices, she was a dedicated New Yorker and spent eight years at Estée Lauder as Vice President, Corporate Digital and Content Marketing Worldwide. She also founded Executive Moms in 2002, an organization for working mothers, which continues today. Earlier roles include positions at Sure Fit, Revlon, Unilever, and Kaplan Thaler.
Taco Bell, a subsidiary of Yum! Brands, along with KFC and Pizza Hut, is the leading Mexican-inspired quick service restaurant brand in the United States. With 7,000 US restaurants and 250 overseas, Taco Bell plans to add 2,000 more internationally in the coming decade. In 2016, Taco Bell was named one of Fast Company's 10 Most Innovative Companies in the World.
The company also provides education opportunities and serves the community through its non-profit organization, The Taco Bell Foundation, and connects fans with their passions through programs such as the Live Más Scholarship.