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Instagram powers Taco Bell's innovation machine — and it's completely changing the fast-food menu as we know it

Kate Taylor
Quesalupa

(Taco Bell)

Taco Bell reportedly spent two years perfecting the Quesalupa's cheese pull. 

The company's social media team closely watches the brand’s Twitter to keep an eye out for customers who are disappointed by cheese that isn't as stretchy as what is portrayed in ads. If the team spots a complaint, it could lead to an email reminding staff not to overcook a tortilla or let products to sit around for too long after being fried.

Now, when Taco Bell develops new menu items, how the snacks will look on Instagram is top of mind. 

"We want to be a part of culture," Liz Matthews, Taco Bell's chief innovation officer, told Business Insider. 

In many ways, social media platforms like Instagram are also powering Taco Bell's innovation engine and determining what's on the fast-food chain's menu. 

Instagram in the kitchen

At Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, California, a team of chefs and food scientists spend their days developing a seemingly endless list of new items, each one more bizarre yet strangely appealing than the last. How the food will look in pictures is always on their minds.

"We want people to talk about it, and blog about it, and get excited, and share their pictures," Matthews said. "We can always make food taste good. But, how do you get that twist that makes it a part of people's lives instead of just eating?"

The culinary team keeps tabs on the most-Instagrammed Taco Bell menu items. At the top of the list is the brand's brightly-colored Frozen Freezes. The Cap'n Crunch Delite, which was only available for a limited time, also got its 15 minutes of fame.  

"We think the brand is a social experience, so it lends itself to social media," Marisa Thalberg, Taco Bell's CMO, told Business Insider.

The customer becomes the advertiser 

In January, Taco Bell did something it never had before. Instead of relying on ads and traditional media to publicize its new Naked Chicken Chalupa, it put the power in the hands of Instagrammers. 

In a handful of cities around the US, the chain held launch parties for people to show up, take photos of the chalupas, and — hopefully — share them on Instagram. "Speakeasies," where Taco Bell was giving away Naked Chicken Chalupas, were packed with props and bright lights in an attempt to help Instagrammers get the perfect shot of the new menu item. 

Increasingly, the chain is relying on social media influencers rather than its own accounts to win over customers. 

People are much less to believe a fast-food chain bragging about a new product than they are to trust an Instagram account they've been following for months. That is especially relevant with semi-bizarre menu items, like the Naked Chicken Chalupa and other over-the-top mashups that have become Taco Bell's specialty. 

The chain targets a wide range of accounts.

There are people with huge Instagram reach and an affinity for Taco Bell, who the chains hires as partners. These partners are paid to post photos (or Snapchats, or YouTube videos) of Taco Bell on their own accounts. Taco Bell is increasingly reaching out to "micro-influencers," or people who may not have a huge social reach but who are trusted and relevant in their communities. 

"We all think about our personal brands — anyone who participates in social media is almost intuitively thinking about how to document experiences and how things become badges," Thalberg said. 

In other words, while Taco Bell has a brand, so do it's customers. In 2017, Taco Bell's success depends on becoming a part of their customers' personal brands — and convincing them to help market the chain's new menu offerings.

'The cult of Taco Bell' (Taco Bell wants to focus on showcasing not just tacos, but also art.Taco Bell Instagram)

Taco Bell Instagram

Finally, there's Taco Bell's own Instagram account, which has more than 1 million followers. Scrolling through Taco Bell's account, the bright colors and wacky menu items that have become the brand's hallmarks can be found in abundance.

The chain's departure from what Tracee Larocca, senior vice president of advertising and brand engagement, calls it's early 2000s "frat boy voice" to its recent chill, fun friend attitude has been well documented. 

Now, however, there's a new shift in the chain's social tone on the horizon.

"What's our core differentiator?" was the core question to answer when figuring out Taco Bell's new strategy, according to Ryan Rimsnider, the chain's senior manager of social strategy. "It really is the cult of Taco Bell, that fan culture that we've harnessed and we've been cultivating." 

As a result, Taco Bell is transforming its Instagram from a place to post taco pictures to a platform to connect loyal taco lovers.

"On Instagram, we saw everyone was catching up," Rimsnider said, as other fast-food chains hired trendy photographers and witty copywriters. "What we're going to do now is... create a digital art gallery on our Instagram feed."

Going forward, the chain wants to curate a collection of sorts, featuring designs of the in-house creative team, partner artists, and more. By highlighting creativity instead of just menu items, Taco Bell hopes to use Instagram to "deepen the relationship" with customers, instead of just posting ads for burritos. 

"They're actually going to become curators of this amazing art, so every time you click on it you feel like you walked into an art gallery," Larocca said. "Which is, I think, what draws people to an Instagram, instead of a Facebook... there's a more artistic nature." 

"It's another way to pivot away from what everyone else is doing, and kind of challenge them to keep up," Rimsnider said. 

Ultimately, Taco Bell's Instagram strategy is an endless feedback loop.

Tacos are created to be photographed and posted on Instagram. Taco Bell customers post their own photos of these tacos. Then, Taco Bell posts photos — not even of tacos, necessarily — to engage with customers, in hopes of creating the demand for more tacos.

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