Operations

Marketing basics from Taco Bell's incoming CEO and more takeaways from CREATE: The Experience

The annual conference hosted by sister-brand Nation's Restaurant News wrapped up Tuesday in Palm Springs, Calif.
Palm Springs, Calif.
This year, Palm Springs. Next year the event is scheduled to be held in Nashville, Tenn. |Photo: Shutterstock

The annual CREATE: The Experience wrapped up in Palm Springs, Calif., on Tuesday. The three-day event hosted by sister brand Nation’s Restaurant News gathered roughly 450 restaurant operators from across the industry to network and share ideas.

One focus was on restaurants taking their brand to the next level, whether they are young, emerging concepts thinking of bringing on investors or bigger chains plotting expansion.

Here are some highlights from the conference:

In the crowded restaurant space, restaurant chains need to focus on the things that have the biggest impact.

At least that’s the philosophy of Sean Tresvant, Taco Bell’s chief global brand and strategy officer, who is stepping into the role of CEO on Jan. 1.

Tresvant joined Taco Bell in late 2021 and brought the idea of “fewer, deeper, bolder” to the quick-service chain’s marketing efforts. Applying that to the brand’s existing “restless creativity” mindset, Tresvant said he hopes to bring Taco Bell to new and different places.

“You have to break through and create noise about the biggest things that will make the biggest impact,” he said.

Under his marketing leadership, Taco Bell, tapped into its deep well of authenticity with effort to “liberate Taco Tuesday,” a phrase that had been trademarked by Taco John’s for 50 years. It was a marketing ploy that only a brand like Taco Bell could pull off—albeit with the help of NBA superstar LeBron James, who had also attempted to trademark the term, and supported Taco Bell’s effort.

Tresvant said he has the challenge of keeping Taco Bell’s passionate cult followers happy while bringing in new users for new occasions, not just late night. He offered three basic building blocks for marketing:

  • Know your customer. A lot of brands have different voices and that’s because they’re chasing too many different types of consumers. Better to know your target and speak their language.
  • Understand how to use technology to solve problems. Tresvant describes this as “math and magic,” or using data to make smarter decisions. “Technology will be a separator of good brands from great brands,” he said.
  • Take some chances. If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not trying hard enough. “You gotta swing for the fences,” he said.

 

Approach everything with a beginner’s mindset.

Nathaniel Ru, co-founder and chief brand officer of Sweetgreen, said that mindset has helped spark the brand’s innovation. He and his co-founders started the brand while in college, with essentially no restaurant experience. He said they made a lot of mistakes, but the things that worked, they continued to scale.

“We try to go into every situation or every problem that we have to solve with a really important beginner’s mindset because everything is changing, and I mean the whole industry has changed in the last three years,” he said. “So to think that you know what you’re doing 100% of the time is really kind of insane.

 “I think sometimes you have the founder syndrome where it’s like you want to do all these things, but you don’t have the time or resources to do them,” he added. “Over the years, we’ve tried to stack rank the innovations, to choose the ones we can actually execute every year. But always making sure that we don’t think we know every single answer to every single problem.”

Embrace your “founder-itis.”

Lauren Bailey, co-founder and CEO of Upward Projects, parent to the Postino and other brands, sees pros and cons to being a founder who suffers from “founder-itis.”

Team members might recognize those moments, when a founder is being passionate to the point of being “borderline crazy,” she said.

“You have a vision that at times you have a hard time articulating and you stick your finger and stuff where you shouldn’t, or [don’t] get out of the way, or hold people back. You obsess about things,” she said. “It’s like fire can keep you warm in the winter or burn your house down, it depends on how you decide to use it. But it’s a very important thing that makes these brands great.”

Restaurants can get smarter about pricing.

Datassential has mapped out pricing at locations throughout large chains, and there are clear trends, with higher pricing indicated on the West Coast, for example, where operating costs are higher. But Datassential still finds areas where higher-priced restaurants are operating right next to lower-priced units, indicating that operators are not gauging their markets well.

The trend shows up among both franchised and corporate locations, so it’s “not franchisees gone wild,” said Jack Li, co-founder of Datassential. “We have not learned how to price our menus perfectly efficiently just yet.”

It’s time to bring gochujang to Wisconsin.

What U.S. city is least familiar with current culinary trends?

Wausau, Wisc.

That’s according to Datassential, which looked at the American cities where trendy foods are most popular and ranked them by the population’s familiarity with those flavors.

The top 10 cities most familiar with trendy foods (ranked in order): San Francisco, Monterey, Calif., Miami, San Diego, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Seattle, New York and Portland.

At the bottom of the ranking came the three cities least familiar with trendy foods: Beaumont, Texas; Evansville, Ind.; and Wausau.

Crumbl Cookies has more followers on Tik Tok than Starbucks and Nike combined.

It’s true. Crumbl has 7.1 million followers on Tik Tok, while Starbucks has 2.1 million and Nike has 4.9 million.

CEO and Co-founder Jason McGowan credits the universal appeal of cookies across all generations and demographics.

“Younger demographics love it. Seniors love it. Moms love it,” he said. “It’s something that’s nostalgic and gives childhood memories. Even today, people eat a lot of cookies.”

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