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Crazy antics or crazy smart marketing? How Taco Bell attracts Gen Z

by Stephanie H.
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    When it comes to quick service restaurants, Gen Z has their favorites, and Taco Bell is among the top. But their popularity isn’t based solely on what's on their menu. Here’s what Zs love about the brand. 


    So...Taco Bell opened a hotel and sold out every one of its available rooms within TWO MINUTES. Yes, you heard that right: it sold out in 120 seconds. 

    Wait, what? A Taco Bell hotel? So many questions, right? Let’s unpack that.

    Turns out, fans of the quick service restaurant (QSR) aren’t just loco for their food, they’re wild about the entire brand. So much so that when online reservations for The Bell, a “Taco Bell Hotel and Resort” opened, many superfans hopeful to score even a single-night stay were greeted with a disappointing but hopeful, “Everyone’s really excited about The Bell Hotel and we’re experiencing higher than normal traffic, so keep your crossed fingers on that refresh button.”

    With only 70 spots available for Taco Bell’s four-day takeover of the V Palm Springs Hotel, lucky guests will get to lounge poolside, enjoy Happier Hour at the Baja Bar while listening to live, Feed the Beat performances and eating exclusive Taco Bell food that no one else has ever seen or tasted before. (Of note: the same product developer who invented the widely popular Nacho Fries is in charge of The Bell’s menu.) And they’ll probably be ‘gramming selfies  from their queen- or king-sized rooms as they dig into Taco Bell room service or hit the on-site salon for Taco Bell inspired nail art, fade or braids. 

    Immersive and shareable. GENIUS. 

    No wonder Taco Bell can boast a cult-like following among Gen Z. Fans of the brand don’t just devour their food, they embody the brand. But how did it get that way? What Taco Bell’s secret sauce? 

    What Taco Bell knows about Gen Z marketing

    Long before Gen Z made a run to The Bell, Taco Bell has had a strong marketing game. They realized early on that it’s the consumer in the driver’s seat. The brand is simply paying attention to what Gen Z wants and executing against it. Let’s take a look at just a few examples of what Taco Bell’s been up to. 

    They started a fashion line

    That’s right, the Taco Bell x Forever 21 clothing line

    With headlines as hype as What's In The Taco Bell x Forever 21 Collection? It Just Dropped & It's Straight Fire Sauce,’ it should be no surprise that when the line hit stores one mid-October day in 2017, the clothes were a huge hit.  

    Who knew that besides just consuming Taco Bell, Gen Z would also fork out their dough to wear branded clothing? Taco Bell did. And they were right. More than a few people wanted ‘more sauce and heat’ in their wardrobes: the entire men’s collection sold out online in one day and the women’s line wasn’t far behind. 

    They support and feed the cult of their brand

    A tried-and-true marketing tactic, billboards are pretty standard fare, but a billboard that dispenses cheese? In January 2019, to draw attention to their newest menu item featuring nacho cheese, Taco Bell stood up the “Cheesiest Billboard” in Toronto. For three hours, consumers could stop by the sign (located adjacent to a physical Taco Bell) and bring their favorite snacks to give them the ‘ultimate nacho cheese upgrade.’  

    This billboard, although cheezy, was (liquid) Gen Z marketing gold. You see, Gen Z doesn’t just buy Taco Bell’s food, they have bought into the brand. The cheese-dispensing billboard provides a shared social experience, one that’s ideal for, well, sharing—in person and online. And more importantly perhaps, it’s an experience that Gen Z is happy and eager to share on behalf of Taco Bell because the brand gets them.  

    They get cause marketing — and get it right 

    In April 2019, Taco Bell posted an open letter on their blog asking everyone to ‘ReBELL Against Tuesday Tradition.’ Using Taco Tuesday, “a particular day of the week that puts the taco on a pedestal,” as an example of a long-held belief that no one really understands, Taco Bell takes a stand on challenging today’s societal norms—but without blatantly saying so. The letter goes on, “Because that’s how it’s always been done,” is no longer a suitable answer. Times have changed. Society has changed. As a brand, we have a responsibility to challenge status quo.” 

    Without trying too hard, Taco Bell accomplishes a few things: 1. They resonate with Gen Z—a group who believes in and expects brands to be good and do good. 2. With a wink and a nod, they acknowledge the often holier-than-thou stance many brands take when standing up for an issue. 3. They don’t hide the fact that at the end of the day, they’re a for-profit entity trying to get their customers’ to buy more tacos: “At Taco Bell we think it’s time to reBELL. To bond with friends over your love for soft, hard shell or Doritos Locos tacos any day of the week.”

    A recipe for success

    So what was the secret behind these campaigns? In the case of the clothing line, was it the food or the fashion? No doubt, both. (I mean, who wouldn’t want a bright-red, flame-covered bodysuit that says, ‘FIRE! Don’t wait up?’) And the cheese-dispensing billboard? Well, that’s just fun. And smart. (Gen Z is a fan of OOH.) 

    Taco Bell’s not just being zany for the heck of it. Each move, every campaign (including emancipating Tuesday from tacos) demonstrates just how well the restaurant knows their audience and at every step, they stay true to their brand. Which of course, means thinking outside the bun.

    Food for thought

    Taco Bell’s marketing efforts provide untold opportunity for inspiration. But the best place to start? Catch the eye of Gen Z by being the brand your consumer wants to be associated with. 


    Image source: Taco Bell Newsroom

      Download the report: Gen Z spending habits before and during COVID-19


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