Comeback story: Pre-pandemic nostalgia fuels the return of Taco Bell’s Mexican Pizza

Bringing back an iconic menu item is a lot more complicated than it looks.

The campaign also received the largest earned media results since Taco Bell’s breakfast launch in 2014.
The campaign also received the largest earned media results since Taco Bell’s breakfast launch in 2014.

IRVINE, CA: Taco Bell never intended to bring back Mexican Pizza.

The chain removed the dish from its menu in 2020 for several reasons. Like other restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic, Taco Bell needed to simplify operations for employees and speed up service for customers. The Mexican Pizza was considered a “complex” dish, requiring dedicated ingredients and longer build times, said Taco Bell senior manager of PR and brand experience Matt Prince. 

Another problem: no one was really ordering it anymore.  

“There was a lesson in behavioral science,” said Prince. “I had some family members ask why we took it off the menu and I asked them, ‘Well, when was the last time you had one?’ And they said, “Fifteen years ago.” And I said, ‘Well, that’s one of the reasons.’”

Prince’s family members weren’t the only ones who were upset about the pizza’s removal. He said there was an “uproar” from fans, and even celebrities voiced their hopes for it to return. A Change.org petition was signed by 200,000-plus people asking for Taco Bell to bring back the pizza.

The popularity of the pizza, Prince said, was likely due to a mix of nostalgia and longing for going back to a time “when things were better,” ie pre-pandemic.

“Being such a nostalgic product pushed on people’s emotions in a different way that we haven’t seen out of a product,” said Prince.

In response, Taco Bell started to consider the pizza’s return, especially as elements improved from an operational standpoint. But it wasn’t something the chain could do overnight.

“People don’t realize the lead times for ingredients; for example, just the chilies for the Mexican Pizza’s sauce take months and months to harvest,” said Prince. “So, it isn’t a matter of flipping a switch on or off to bring it back.”

Enter Doja Cat.


In mid-2021, Taco Bell decided to give fans what they wanted, leaning into their passion for the product. 

The brand decided to partner with Doja Cat for the return of the Mexican pizza because she “wasn’t holding back her punches and disdain for the product leaving,” said Prince.

The rapper was a true fan of the product and she made it clear through various social media posts, before Taco Bell reached out, that she was very unhappy with the pizza’s demise. 

Taco Bell didn’t dissuade Doja Cat from continuing to be her authentic self and voice her concerns. 

“We didn’t want this campaign to be positioned in a way where Taco Bell was bringing the pizza back,” said Prince. “More so it was Doja and the fans that brought it back.”

Social media was a strong component of the campaign, including Taco Bell’s own channels, along with Doja Cat’s and other influencers. The push also involved TV advertising, digital, ecommerce and loyalty.

Taco Bell started hinting at the pizza’s comeback in its Super Bowl commercial. The chain said that anyone who signed up for its loyalty program, Taco Bell Rewards, by February 13 would get a surprise on May 19.

That surprise, of course, ended up being the first day the pizza was available to order at participating restaurants nationwide.

In April, Doja Cat made the major Taco Bell announcement during her Coachella performance. The singer also posted a TikTok video and tweet about the return of the menu item. Taco Bell told fans that they could tweet #IBroughtBackTheMexicanPizza and #Giveaway for an exclusive surprise.

As part of its return, Taco Bell also announced Mexican Pizza: The Musical, which planned to air on TikTok on May 26 and feature Dolly Parton and Doja Cat.

The campaign actually did its job a little too well: the pizza sold out after just two weeks, which Prince said the company was not expecting. 

The communications team had to shift its focus to crisis response mode, measuring social sentiment and conversation and building out a strategic comms plan to communicate and build on the campaign all while getting out in front of the products actually selling out.

That same week, the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, took place and it was an immediate pause on any and all comms. The musical also was postponed.

“The following week we communicated the shortages with a completely different strategy with a much different tone,” said Prince. “We pitched select media targets and included an FAQ on our website and onsite at restaurants with as much transparency as possible.”

Taco Bell AOR Edelman supported earned media outreach. 

Taco Bell saw seven-times more conversation and coverage during the product’s return campaign than its removal. It also saw seven-fold more purchases of the product than when it was last on the menu. The campaign also received the largest earned media results since Taco Bell’s breakfast launch in 2014.

“We now have another unplanned return campaign to work through once ingredients can be restored at restaurants,” said Prince. “In addition, you will see the resurgence of Taco Bell's Mexican Pizza: The Musical to celebrate the return.”

Budget information was not disclosed.

Takeaways

The success of the campaign came down to a perfect combination of nostalgic brand connection and modern marketing that created a big and authentic brand moment.

“It really showed the power of trusting the process and partner, and leaning into authentic connections between the fans and your brand,” said Prince. “Instead of trying to shift conversation around the consumer pushback on the Mexican Pizza leaving menus, we leaned in.” 

The campaign also was able to insert itself into about eight news cycles over the course of one-and-a-half years.

“My true gauge of if something is doing well is if my family messages me,” said Prince. “They don’t even know what I do at Taco Bell but they know I work there. That’s when I know there is a pinnacle of awareness.”

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