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What Taco Bell learned from the biggest new product launch of the year

What’s it like to be involved in the biggest new product introduction of the year, the menu item that helped bring your company into the next era? “The journey has been unbelievable, and consumer excitement about it has been absolutely overwhelming,” says Stephanie Perdue, director of brand marketing for Taco Bell Corp., who oversaw the company’s new Doritos Locos Taco. “This has been a real passion project for everyone.”

Rolling out the $1.29 taco on March 8 after a three-year development process, Taco Bell sold 100 million Doritos Locos in the first 10 weeks alone, and more than 230 million by the end of September—an all-time record breaker for Taco Bell and possibly the most successful new fast food menu item ever introduced. (To put it in perspective, it took McDonald’s more than 18 years to sell its first 100 million Big Macs.)

To hear Perdue and her colleagues tell it, is was the most natural thing in the world for Taco Bell to partner with Frito-Lay and put its cult-favorite Crunchy Taco filling into a shell made from the top-selling snack chip: “Taco Bell on the inside and Doritos on the outside,” as the massive pre-launch media campaign had it.

Together with the company’s new Chipotle-like Cantina Bell platform, a breakfast roll-out, and a new “Live Mas!” slogan and brand campaign, the Doritos Locos Taco has helped 50-year-old Taco Bell reinvent itself after a series of reputation-sinking events, starting with a 2006 E. coli outbreak and ending with a 2011 lawsuit (since withdrawn) that falsely accused Taco Bell of stuffing its beef with fillers.

The company brought all hands on deck for Doritos Locos. “Consumer research was telling us that customers were looking for more flavor and more of an experience from Taco Bell,” says Perdue. In April 2009, after briefing a team from Frito-Lay on a “more flavor, more crunch” mission, the snack food maker suggested that it produce a Doritos shell that Taco Bell could use for its standard-bearing taco filling. “Right there during that very first ideation session, we all knew we had a winner,” recalls Perdue. “We had both themes in one product: flavor and crunch.”

It was not the first time that the two companies—one-time siblings under parent PepsiCo—had worked together; Frito-Lay had also helped Taco Bell produce its Beefy Crunch Burrito, among other products. But it was the first time the industry had ever innovated around the taco shell itself, says Perdue, and despite what Taco Bell CEO Greg Creed called the “no-brainer” logic of encasing a Taco Bell taco in a Dorito, it took three more years and multiple iterations of the product to bring it to market.

The typical go-to-market process, says Perdue, is about a year, but the challenges of exactly reproducing a Doritos chip as a taco shell proved challenging. “We started out by putting the Doritos seasoning on the existing taco shell, but consumers instantly called us out on it,” she explains. “That was our Aha! Moment—they were telling us, `We want the Doritos [shell] just the way the chip is,’ right down to the orange dust that gets all over your fingers.”

Through 10 or more rounds of R&D benchwork—with team members from both companies flying between each other’s test kitchens in Plano, Texas, and Irvine, California—Frito-Lay ended up completely changing the corn-masa mix on the shell. “We needed the texture of the shell to be really crunchy—that loud crunch that had to be even louder than the Crunchy Taco,” says Perdue. The chip maker also had to add new machinery in four of its plants to make the hundreds of millions of shells that would be required.

Once the Doritos Locos got into its four final test markets, it was clear that the item was destined to be another cult favorite. “We were reading stories on Facebook about consumers traveling 900 miles to taste this thing,” says Perdue. A special cardboard “holster” had been created, both to help operators with the taco build and to keep that magic orange dust from getting all over customers, and their cars. “We needed to offer the Doritos experience without all the mess, but it turned out that customers loved the packaging. They’d post pictures of it on Facebook and Twitter, like a souvenir that proved you’d eaten one.”

In fact, says Perdue, the consumer really drove the entire process, from the initial “flavor and crunch” marching order onward. “This turned out to be such a great collaboration for us, not only with Frito-Lay, but also with lovers of both Taco Bell and Doritos.”

Not surprisingly, the companies are now testing Cool Ranch Locos tacos as well as a spicy version that customers have asked for. “Doritos offers more than 100 flavors,” says Perdue, “so the fun has just begun.”

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