Marisa Thalberg: 'Taco Bell isn't solving world issues, but it's making people happy'

Thalberg talks to PRWeek about Taco Bell weddings and the chain's recent partnerships with Lyft and Forever 21.

How do you approach consumer marketing at Taco Bell?
Taco Bell is — and behaves as — a category of one. We are clear on what our strategy and voice is and we have a multi-layered calendar that allows us to constantly innovate and introduce value, adding these great moments that intersect our brand with culture. 

How do you remain relevant to millennials and Generation Z, who are known to be judgmental when it comes to fast food?
Taco Bell is a youthful brand. That is reflected in the energy you see at our HQ. We have people that are very plugged into the brand and culture, including youth culture. Not in an academic way, but in a way we are living and breathing it. A lot of the cool things you see us doing are born out of things we see percolating on social media. Either they become stories on their own or we play with them and make them stories.

Rising generations tend to be very savvy and judgmental. How you show up as a brand in terms of voice can make all the difference. Our brand is very self-aware. We love what we do but also don’t take it too seriously. That makes the brand a lot more likeable than if we were constantly pontificating or being high-minded about the things we do that are fun, friendly, and warm.

What makes Taco Bell such a wonderful proposition is that we’re creating craveable food with lots of flavor and texture and price points that start at $1, so anyone can afford them. Is it solving global problems? No. But does it makes people happy and feed them physically and emotionally? It does. 

In August, the Taco Bell Cantina in Las Vegas started offering $600 weddings. How many people have gotten married there since then?
We’ve had nine Taco Bell weddings, with more expected. Some of the trends we observed through just listening is couples taking their wedding pictures in Taco Bell, using our hot sauce packets to propose, or catering their wedding after parties with Taco Bell.

That is why this worked. It wasn’t completely fabricated. There was this consumer behavior out there in the ether. We said, "The Elvis chapel is so yesterday." This location allows people to have a quick, fun Taco Bell wedding.

The mere announcement of it made people go crazy. This says a lot about our ability to tap into things in marketing that are surprising and delightful. 

You come from companies such as Estée Lauder and Revlon, where you served as VP. Did your background in makeup and fashion contribute to Taco Bell partnering with Forever 21?"
It did. I’ve had experience and exposure with how collaborations can be incredibly powerful. When we looked at all the ways our brand is playing in culture with music, sports, and gaming, fashion seemed like an obvious choice.

We would see people making their own Taco Bell stuff and selling it on Etsy. From that, we had the idea to partner with Forever 21, a leader in fast fashion.

Fast fashion has made the idea of great things to wear and enjoy much more accessible to the masses. I love the idea of the brands coming together. My teenage daughters keep asking, "Can I get some [of the clothing]?" That’s a good sign. 

You partnered with Lyft earlier this year, but media outlets such as Fortune, USA Today, and Slate reported the ridesharing company’s drivers were not happy about it. How is the deal proceeding?
A vast majority of the reaction was very favorable. There was one bit of reporting that got distorted and wasn’t the full story. Number one, this was a test. Number two, how do we make the experiences a win-win all around? No driver will ever be forced to do it; it’ll be opt in.

We partnered with Lyft because we saw all these tweets from people saying things such as, "I can’t believe I got my Lyft driver to take me to a Taco Bell drive-thru," and, "I wish I wasn’t embarrassed to ask my Lyft driver to take me home by way of Taco Bell."

 We saw an emerging behavior and this type of social etiquette question. Whether we partner with Lyft nationally or not, it was a successful test. 

What is your approach to partnerships?
You want to find partners that there’s something unexpectedly magical about coming together with, and you’re both totally different and totally the same. Lyft and Forever 21 fit that bill for us. 

With which PR agency do you work with?
We work with Edelman. 

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