October 16, 2018
Marisa Thalberg, CMO of Taco Bell, joins Marketing Mix to discuss the strategies behind the fast-food brand’s world-class marketing campaigns. For Marisa, her transition from the beauty industry to fast-food had more to do with seeing the similarities in the two industries rather than their differences. Tune in to hear how Taco Bell is using traditional, digital, earned and paid media to maintain its national fan base while navigating through the constantly evolving mediascape.
Jeff: Before Taco Bell, you were CMO at Estee Lauder. How did you find the transition from the beauty to the fast food industry?
Marisa: I love that it seems illogical and unexpected because that's what makes it interesting. It definitely took courage and imagination from both Taco Bell and myself to make the decision. Creativity is never sparked from insularity and lateral thinking. For me it was more of a case of seeing the similarities in the two industries rather than their differences. I realized I was attracted to big, interesting and meaningful brands that have a culture that creates an emotional connection with people. I went from marketing products people crave to products people crave - just different kinds of cravings.
Jeff: How does the culture of Taco Bell impact how you approach marketing in the company?
Marisa: The creative culture of Taco Bell is what initially attracted me to the company and continues to be one the greatest sources of ongoing inspiration for my work. In the marketing organization at Taco Bell, our inclination is to say yes to ideas, then figure out if they are possible, rather than saying no and limiting our horizons, and I like to believe I am helping to continue to drive that culture within the company.
Jeff: Taco Bell has a great fan base. Can you think of a marketing campaign that was heavily influenced by them?
Marisa: At Taco bell, we can't keep all our fun, creative limited time items we’ve ever created on the menus at all times because of operational complexity, but some of our products are loved so much that they generate their own fan bases. When the Beefy Crunch Burrito was discontinued, a group of its biggest fans started a movement to bring it back. I think the Beefy Crunch Burrito movement now has around 50,000 members on Facebook and they even have their own flag. We listened to their wishes and I’m hoping we have created some happiness with them in bringing it back.
Jeff: How has Taco Bell’s marketing strategy changed as media has evolved; are you investing more in one channel than you are in another?
Marisa: When considering how to spend our marketing dollars wisely to drive the best overall results for the business, we have to consider the role of media and communications in getting people into the restaurant. It's an intricate choreography evolving due to the state of media and data, and it’s giving us a new ability to think through our decision making of how to have reach of a mass business while staying targeted. I find it incredibly exciting.
In the big picture of what you're asking, TV does continue to be an important medium for us, even though you read that nobody is watching it anymore, paradoxically, the demand for television is higher than ever and marketers still rely on television to have the best chances of delivering brand messages to as many people as possible and you just can't scale digital the same way yet.
Our earned media strategies and relationship with the press is still very important as well. We see this as part of content too because we create assets and campaigns with the goals and interest of press in mind. In terms of media, we have the benefit of playing in a very large sandbox because we are a big brand, but with that comes a lot of complexity and a lot of expectation and I think it's only getting harder to navigate through that complexity as media continues to evolve.
Jeff: When it comes to communicating with customers, do you see any major challenges in the next year?
Marisa: There is never just one singular challenge; it's a continuation of the changing nature of media that is always challenging marketers. Digital is really changing the whole field of marketing. For example, the ways in which people watch television is changing - a lot of people will record shows and watch a month later. I have to be careful that people aren't seeing ads for products that are no longer served in our restaurants. What is the best way to play in the digital space? I think the answers are still, frankly, murky. It's a very hard time to be a marketer as there are so many more variables to consider. A whole new world of possibilities has opened up to marketing with the development of digital and data science, so I think the next year will be a case of figuring out the best way to approach it all in more effective ways.
Jeff: Aside from Taco Bell, what has been your favourite marketing campaign in recent time?
Marisa: Nike’s campaign with Colin Kaepernick because it created so much conversation at industry level. As a brand, they had the permission to execute such a campaign because the messaging already aligned with their ethos. Nike has built its purpose around the whole premise of “just do it” and aspiring action so it felt like a provocative and genuine extension of the brand, so I thought it was both brave and smart.
Jeff: If you weren’t a CMO, what would be your dream job?
Marisa: I love what I do so that helps, but I think there are other things I could have loved equally. Something that has creativity infused with creating a difference in people’s lives. I think I would have been a teacher or a broadcast journalist. I love storytelling, communicating and teaching and those attributes come out in my career today.
Jeff: How would you describe the color yellow to somebody who is blind?
Marisa: I love the color yellow because it makes me think of my Mom and her favorite colors were yellow and green to the point where her whole house was yellow and green. It is sunshine to me so I would describe it as that warm glow you feel on your face when you're standing in the sun.
Please note, the above has been paraphrased for editorial purposes