Marketing in its traditional sense no longer works in the competitive restaurant industry, said Greg Creed, chief executive of Taco Bell.

Creed, speaking Thursday at the People Report Summer Brand Camp conference in Dallas, said the term “marketing” is dying out and, in its place, brands are becoming “publishers” and telling their own stories.

“You need positive news out there everyday,” Creed said. “If we don’t fill the airwaves with positive news, there will be things out there like the kid licking the tacos.”

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The Irving, Calif.-division of Yum Brands faced a viral firestorm Monday after a photo of an employee licking a stack of taco shells appeared on Facebook and made the rounds on Twitter. The company later said the shells were being thrown out at a franchise location and never were served to customers.

“You cannot control this,” Creed said, “just as we could not control the kid who licked the taco. What we can do is damage control to the best of our ability. But let’s be honest, 17-year-olds are going to do dumb-ass things.”

Creed said companies must train employees and make them aware that these sorts of actions have consequences, especially in the age of fast-moving social media.

“If you are a control freak, you’re not going to like the future,” he said.

Social media is important as Taco Bell grows, he added. “We think we can double the size of Taco Bell in the next 10 years,” he said. “That’s a pretty bold goal. We think we can go from $7 billion, which is what we were at the end of 2011, to about $14 billion by the end of 2021.

“The good news is that I’ll be retired by then, so if we don’t achieve it, I won’t be responsible,” he said with a laugh.

Recent success for the brand, such as the “Live Mas” slogan and new platforms like the Doritos Locos Taco and Cantina Bell, have been based on what Creed calls the public’s changing approach to food. “Food has gone from fuel to food as an experience,” he said. “That’s not a Taco Bell insight; that’s a category insight. I watch television, and I watch social media, and I think some brands are still marketing food as fuel.”

Millions of Doritos Locos Tacos in two flavors have inspired Taco Bell fans, Creed said. And with 123 flavors of Doritos around the world, he added quickly, “I don’t think we’ll run out of flavors very soon.”

The brand’s Cantina Bell platform “introduced flavors, tastes and ingredients that people didn’t traditionally expect from Taco Bell” and made it more relevant, Creed said, noting that the platform will launch quesadillas and fajitas in the next five to six weeks.

Fostering employee engagement

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With growth, Taco Bell will need to hire more employees and emphasize the importance of engagement and trust with team members, according to Creed. “If we do not engage, interact with, deal with and really amplify the relationship we have with our team members, we are crazy to have the expectation that the customer experience will improve,” he said.

“My belief is there will be a minimum-wage increase,” he added, “and obviously that health care will occur, despite the people who think it might get delayed.”

Taco Bell is working on things like shift leaves and reducing employee contributions where possible, he said. The company has also done a lot of work with franchisees to outline benefits to productivity with some of the coming changes.

With product launches, for example, Creed said the employees are the first to know what’s happening. For example, with the Doritos Locos Tacos Cool Ranch, the company made sure its employees knew first to tell their friends. Taco Bell also gave each employee five coupons for free meals to give to friends and family.

“We have 150,000 employees,” he said, “so suddenly I’ve got 150,000 people who are telling all their friends that we are launching this thing on March 12.”

Social media remains a big part of Taco Bell’s communication with customers and employees. Taco Bell headquarters has created a “Fishbowl” for tracking and amplifying stories related to the brand on social media, as well as tracking other brands. “You have to entrust 23-year-olds to protect or amplify the brand without the classic structure that organizations use to make decisions,” he said. “That’s why understanding the brand essence is so important, because they can respond in the voice of the brand.”

Through the monitoring of social media, the company found out about a rumor that a Taco Bell was headed to the small community of Bethel, Alaska. The company was able to capitalize on that opportunity by helicoptering in a truck to serve an estimated 10,000 tacos to Bethel residents.

The company is working on other ideas that aim to “take tacos to where tacos have never been taken before,” Creed said, which, in turn, has encouraged and excited employees.

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