The mystery behind Taco Bell's Super Bowl 50 ad

Taco Bell mystery Pre-Order
Source: Taco Bell

Like all Super Bowl advertisers, Taco Bell wants to use advertising's biggest day to sell you its products. There's one caveat: The restaurant chain wants to you to blindly order its latest food item without telling you what it is by using a highly mysterious preorder system.

It's a crazy concept, but the Irvine, California-based company believes its pulse on pop culture gives it the ability to pull off the stunt. And, it's relying on that hype to help it stand out from the rest of the Super Bowl advertiser pack.

"We're going to zig when everyone else zags," said Taco Bell chief marketing officer Marisa Thalberg. "We're going to do what's right for us when it makes sense. This is our biggest innovation probably."

"I'm getting happy goosebumps," Thalberg added. "I have that feeling with this campaign."

While most people think of a Super Bowl ad as what they see on TV on game day, the definition of a Super Bowl ad campaign has greatly expanded. The growth of social media and the demand for real-world brand-curated events means that in order to stand out, a company has to be able to build publicity on all fronts before, during and after the game.

It's a higher stakes game than ever before — and several sources are pegging Taco Bell's Super Bowl ad campaign investment at $15 million to $20 million.

"Ten years ago, the focus was on the Super Bowl ad itself," said Russell Winer, professor of marketing at NYU's Stern School of Business. "What's changed today is that the buzz prior to the Super Bowl ad, about the Super Bowl ad, and the buzz after the show has tremendously increased the value of Super Bowl advertising."


To understand why Taco Bell is so confident in this unnamed product and its strategy, you have to go back a few years. Thalberg said Taco Bell started developing the item about two to three years ago after looking at food trends.

"This one required a level of execution on the product that has never been done before. That's why it took so long," Thalberg explained.

While Thalberg wouldn't say what the actual product was, she confirmed that part of its product development strategy was to sell potential items in some markets. Signs point to it being the "Quesalupa," which was tested in 36 Toledo, Ohio, stores in 2015. The city was also the test market for the chain's successful Doritos Locos Tacos. Conan O'Brien featured the taco, which has a pepper jack cheese stuffed shell, on a segment inside Taco Bell's innovation lab on TBS' "Conan" last year.

At the time, the company said it was one of the most successful tests in Taco Bell's history, according to the Toledo Blade newspaper.

But having a theoretical gold mine on your hands still doesn't mean success when there's so many other competitors, Winer pointed out. Everyone has their own innovative new product, whether that's McDonald's all-day breakfast or Burger King's chicken fries, and a new way to sell it.

"The quick service restaurant market is crowded and competitive," said Winer. "Not only is the QSR market crowded but the advertising market is crowded."

Partially what makes a Super Bowl launch so valuable is the fact you can reach so many viewers at once, according to Spark CEO Chris Boothe. Spark is Taco Bell's strategic media planning agency, which handles how it budgets its marketing. To get the same number of millennial viewers as the Super Bowl, Boothe said, a company would have to buy ads on seven episodes of Fox's "Empire"or five episodes of "The Walking Dead."

It's also the most "tweetworthy" event, Boothe pointed out. Last year's Super Bowl pulled in more than 25 million tweets, peaking at 395,000 per minute. Bringing that back to prime-time television, "Empire" only brought in 4.74 million tweets for a whole 10-episode season. "The Walking Dead" had 3.43 million tweets for its current eight-episode run.

"Any time you are launching a product, awareness is the number one thing you want to do," said Boothe. "It's a great way to build that reach and awareness as much as possible, and then cascade it across all areas."

Taco Bell actually wanted to launch the unnamed product earlier, according to Thalberg, but realized that the timing lined up perfectly with the Super Bowl. About six to eight months ago, it told its lead creative agency Deutsch it wanted to enter the big game.

Deutsch isn't a newcomer to Super Bowl success. The agency was responsible for Volkswagen's "The Force" Super Bowl campaign in 2011. It also handled Taco Bell's last entry into the Super Bowl, 2013's "Viva Young," which was the most TiVoed ad that year according to CNET.

Deutsch North America CEO Mike Sheldon said it's the agency that came up with the concept of releasing the Super Bowl ad early online to get people to notice before the game. "The Force" got 17 million views before the commercial even aired, and is one of the most watched ads of all time on YouTube. Since then, releasing an ad early online has become an industry standard.

For Taco Bell's latest campaign, it advised the opposite: Keep everything close to the vest, and build an air of mystery.

"It would have been an option to let that spot go early, and get the press and social amplification," admitted Sheldon. "But we have had enough success as a brand to be able to get the jumbo drums going so that people will pay attention during the tease phase. Normally, I wouldn't advise doing that, but in this particular case, because of the nature of Taco Bell consumers and how the millions of rabid fans react, I thought we could carry off a pretty elaborate teaser beforehand."

To get a Super Bowl commercial, a brand has to commit a certain amount of advertising money toward the network hosting the Super Bowl. That means in addition to your Super Bowl ad buy — which is currently going for about $5 million per 30-second spot this year — the company will have to commit to advertise on CBS' other programs, which can include other pricey high profile events like the Grammy's or the NCAA March Madness tournament.

While details of Taco Bell's ad are being kept quiet, it's promised to be a pop culture-studded spot. It even tapped technology platform Zefr to identify key online stars. If its teaser campaign is any indication, even Taco bell pitchman James Harden of the NBA doesn't know what the product or the ad will be. Sources say Taco Bell also purchased cheaper regional commercials that will air only in a few markets that fit in with the main commercial's theme to further get viral buzz after the national ad airs.

James Hardin in a Taco Bell ad.
Source: Taco Bell | YouTube
James Hardin in a Taco Bell ad.

However, having a Super Bowl ad on TV isn't the whole campaign today. A lot more has to be done to ensure a hit.

"The ability to be on TV is definitely a marketer's dream, particularly for our consumers and our fans," said Cheryl Gresham, director of media for Taco Bell, part of Yum Brands. "They are everywhere, they are certainly watching the Super Bowl on Sunday, and they are all over social. They are following influencers online. We know we need to be there."

To kick things off, Taco Bell released a redacted press release on Jan. 5 that mentioned it was returning to the Super Bowl but cleverly removed all mentions of the product.

Then, on Feb. 1, it announced a preorder page that would allow consumers to order the new item online for $2.99 — but still didn't say what the product was. Thalberg says the company has already received thousands of requests.It also mailed out green bricks to key journalists and influencers to further shroud the product in mystery, as well as released behind-the-scenes online teasers. Instead of showing the product it showed green screen placeholders.

Saturday, everyone who preordered the item, as well as friends and family of Taco Bell employees, will be invited in stores to try the product. At three locations, the company will have some of its "Feed the Beat Concert" series artists performing for the attendees.

Taco Bell is hoping that not only will eaters enjoy the product, but they'll create even more pre-Super Bowl buzz with social media posts about the item — more additional nonpaid and organic advertising.

"We knew people have been anticipating what Taco Bell is going to do next," said Thalberg. "There's always those people who want the first bragging rights, the first Instagram. We thought 'Wouldn't it be amazing if we could reward them?'"

Pulling off all these parts also requires the coordination of Taco Bell's internal agency TBD, its digital and social paid media agency DigitasLBi, its public relations agency Edelman, and its music event agency The Syndicate.

"The idea of doing the Super Bowl, which is not something an advertiser takes lightly, is always high stakes poker," said Sheldon. "It's not for the faint of heart."

Taco Bell's Thalberg said as long as people try the unnamed product, it's considering it a Super Bowl win.

"We just want to drive excitement for the brand drive, awareness and sales for this new product," she said. "We want people to just feel great for Taco Bell and really excited to give this new thing a try."