Taco Bell PR Lessons?

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Danny, over at the always entertaining Beyond Madison Avenue blog , points us to Taco Bell's latest PR effort following the E-coli scare that involved some of its restaurants. If you haven't seen the TV spot, it features Greg Creed, CEO of Taco Bell, standing in one of his restaurants, apologizing for the E-coli outbreak and reassuring viewers about the safety of Taco Bell restaurants.

(To watch the spot, click here, select press releases from the "our company" tab at the top of the screen, and click on the video button at the top right of the screen.)

When I first saw the spot, I was a little torn. On the pro side, I thought it was great that Taco Bell engaged in a dialogue with their customers and addressed the issue head-on: We're Taco Bell. We screwed up. We fixed the problem. We've been cleared by the CDC. Life is good again.

I also liked the fact that they put a face to the brand. But that initial feeling was short lived:

1) The spot was cheaply made. It looked like something my local cable system would put together for a local restaurant. I expected more from Taco Bell. -3 point.

2) Don't put the president of the company in your spot unless they are charismatic, photogenic, and immediately likeable. Most of the time, you're better off using a spokesperson, model, or actor who can project just the right screen presence and get the point across. -1 point.

3) Putting the president of the company in a spot like this one is also a double-edged sword: On the one hand, it shows that the negative situation that you are trying to dissipate is being delt with. (+2 points.) Unfortunately, it does nothing to dissipate the situation. If anything, putting your top exec on TV if he/she isn't always a media darling, makes the situation seem perhaps worse and serious than it was. -2 points.

4) People want to be reassured by someone they are naturally inclined to trust. The more culturally like them that person is, the more likely it is that people will trust him/her. I am pretty sure that most people had no idea that Taco Bell's president was foreign, and this was probably not the best time to find out. Whether we like to admit it or not, a foreigner reassuring the masses that his restaurants are safe isn't as effective as letting one of their own do so. (Or someone who looks and sound like one of their own.) Note: Before you start sending me hate mail, please remember that I am foreign, and therefore pretty much incapable of being xenophobic while living in a country that is not my own. (Just keep those pesky Canadians away from me though.)

But seriously. It's true that we tend to naturally place more trust in people who look, sound and seem like us than... strangers. It's just science.

5) Using the words "E-Coli" and "CDC" in your spot are a surefire way to get people's attention, but those are the words that will stick in people's minds. Unfortunately, Taco Bell was still in crisis mode (which was an internal operative mode) while the rest of us were not. Tip: Don't use crisis words when the crisis is over. Using more positive words that focus on safety, flavor and experience would have probably been a little more effective in helping everyone mentally transition to "things are back to normal" mode.

6) Danny makes the point that the spot was aired after the Taco Bell E-Coli story had started to fade from the news. The outbreak was kind of a non-issue. Again, Taco bell was still in crisis mode while the rest of us were already beyond it. The timing of the spot made it seem that the crisis was still ongoing - despite the fact that it marked the official "it's okay to eat here again." For reminding us of something that wasn't really in our minds anymore and extending the duration of a black eye for their brand, Taco Bell loses another point.

7) Did I mention that the ad looked cheap and bleak?

I'll let Danny have the last word:
I don’t claim to be a PR guy. I don’t eat at Taco Bell if I can help it. And I was aware of the outbreak when it was reported recently. But somehow, this apology didn’t sit well with me. It was yesterday’s news. It was forgotten. And now I have the president of the company helping me re-associate Taco Bell with E. Coli and the Center for Disease Control. Seems to me that Taco Bell has resurrected a dead horse simply for the sake of killing it again. And then kicking it.

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