Where's the beef? Does it matter?

February 2, 2011

Conventional wisdom tells us that the average fast food consumer would be unfazed by claims that Taco Bell’s beef is actually “taco meat filling”. Taco Bell’s brand has never been based on quality ingredients, it’s al about cheap, fast and filling.

Conventional wisdom tells us that the average fast food consumer — and certainly the young male demographic courted by Taco Bell — would be unfazed by claims that Taco Bell’s beef is actually “taco meat filling” with less than 40% real cow. Taco Bell’s brand has never been based on quality ingredients, it’s al about cheap, fast and filling.

So why then, is Taco Bell putting on one of the more aggressive PR plays in recent memory? Because Taco Bell understands that this controversy has little to do with its brand’s commitment to quality. Brand managers and strategist everywhere can learn several important lessons from Taco Bell.

1. Don’t let outside parties define your brand.
A maxim for sure in politics, but no less important here. Taco Bell has seen other food giants take a terrible beating from Morgan Spurlock et al and are determined not to be next. Sometimes you don’t want to give your opponents the press and legitimacy that come with an aggressive response — but the stakes are too high to sit on the PR sidelines.

2. There is no magic to building a brand.
But it must be based on honest delivery. Customer service, value, quality — many marketers have long argued that these are must haves for any brand. The likes of RyanAir, Rolex and Taco Bell itself call these into question. Taco Bell’s response tells us that they know what the one must-have brand asset really is — honesty. And even though Taco Bell president Greg Creed is framing the response around an “attack on our quality”, he knows better (ever eat a Taco Bell chalupa?). What Taco Bell understands is that assets like quality are all relative — but honesty is much more black and white, and an absolute necessity for any brand.

3. It’s much cheaper to stop brand damage then to fix it later.
Last week Taco Bell ran full-page ads in more than a dozen major papers and created an impressively robust and integrated PR response. As a professional brand consultant, I have seen too many clients balk at the cost of dealing with brand problems head-on. Inevitably they find repairing the damage after a period of neglect far more costly — sometimes to the point of making true recovery impossible. Taco Bell realizes what is at stake and wisely decided that now is not the time to pinch pennies.

All of this is seems to be working — press coverage contains verbatims from Taco Bell’s PR response and even many blogs are airing their side of the story.

As the Taco Bell litigation winds its way through court we will learn much more about what constitutes “beef” versus “taco meat filling”; but what we have learned already is that an integrated head-on approach can go a long way toward limiting fall-out and getting ahead of potentially mortal brand damage.

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