6 questions for Taco Bell’s Matt Prince on how the brand uses social media to make menu decisions

The chain’s headquarters has a room dedicated to social listening called The Fishbowl, and it takes the opinions of its fans very seriously -- especially about potatoes.

When Taco Bell has to make a big decision, it often uses social media as its North Star.

Matt Prince, senior manager of PR at Taco Bell, shared how the restaurant chain uses social media listening tool NetBase Quid to understand food trends and culture insights that affect everything from its content and brand voice to its packaging and menu innovations. 

How has Taco Bell’s approach to listening to consumers on social media changed over the years?
The brand's approach to social media has mirrored the evolution of consumers’ use of social media. As social channels like Twitter and Instagram have matured, and of course new platforms like TikTok emerge, the way in which consumers engage with and impact brands is very powerful. Fans’ voices are getting louder, and brands are listening more closely.

In addition, social media has caused the shelf life of trends to get shorter. In many cases, you can uncover a food trend through social, begin ideation and the food innovation development process, and by the time a product is born a year later, that trend has already passed. It forces you to move much quicker.

At Taco Bell HQ, we actually have a room dedicated to social listening. It’s called The Fishbowl (pictured below), and what started as one screen in a dark room has evolved to 12 screens at the center of our offices. Running 24/7, we have dashboards powered by Netbase Quid showing real-time conversations and trends revolving around our brand. The physical growth and focus of that room is a good indicator of how intently teams are paying attention to the social conversation.

Can you give some examples of items you have added to the menu based on social media conversations?  
Back in the summer of 2020, we announced the removal of a handful of menu items after months of analyzing the new way we are operating our restaurants during the pandemic. We simplified our menu to streamline operations and make the ordering experience more efficient for our team members and guests.

Most of the resulting social conversation was about the removal of our potatoes. We are always listening to our fans, and we heard them loud and clear when we removed potatoes. The potatoes are unique because they serve as an ingredient to make certain items vegetarian, and Taco Bell has long been a destination for craveable vegetarian food. For many reasons, not just because of the response, Taco Bell decided to start fresh in 2021 and bring back potatoes as part of a broader commitment to expanding vegetarian offers.

Was there ever a time where this backfired?
Nothing that’s backfired, but certainly learnings along the way. One example, we have a very active and passionate fan base for the Beefy Crunch Burrito. Through the years, we’ve worked closely with it to bring the product back several times and actually used social conversation in our advertising to highlight the power of social media and a passionate fan base. That passion can very quickly turn to frustration when products return for just a limited time. So it’s important to be as transparent as possible and manage expectations to the best of your ability. 

What’s one of the weirdest conversations you’ve seen about Taco Bell’s menu items on social?
When we decided to bring back potatoes at the start of the year, we decided to make the announcement with our CEO, Mark King, as, well, a potato. It was one of those moments where you second guess a tactic but trust the larger creative experts around you, and sure enough it was a big hit.

What has social media chatter affected outside of your menu?
It's also driven inspiration and ideation for some of our largest activations. Things like helicoptering a taco truck to Bethel, Alaska or saving the first Taco Bell. Even Taco Bell Weddings and our “Demolition Man” activation at Comic-Con were powered by the insights discovered in social media. Social monitoring and social conversations aren’t proprietary to any brand; it’s the ability in which you can organize, execute and amplify that allows your brand to succeed when it comes to social listening.

What PR firm do you work with?

This story first appeared on PRWeek US.


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