More than a decade ago, Taco Bell slogged through a stretch of rough quarters. Yum! Brands tried everything in the playbook. It lowered prices. Activated media. “But we just couldn’t do it,” says Yum! CMO Ken Muench, who was leading the company’s agency at the time.

The crossroads, however, would prove industry-shaking.

When people today refer to Taco Bell as a “lifestyle brand,” it’s often done lightly and with an appreciation for the offbeat. Pop-up hotels. Forever 21 clothing. A taco lens on Snapchat.

Yet it’s unlikely consumers realize the deliberation, and how Yum! spent years and ample resources to create a scalable model it’s carried across the globe to revive brands.

Something executives call, “R.E.D. Marketing.”

To illustrate the model, which is the heart of a new book written by Muench and former Yum! CEO Greg Creed, Muench refers to the company’s taco giant. What was wrong with the brand in 2011? Yum! stepped back and dove into the chain’s core to find out. But more so, it asked what was happening with consumers. What was taking place in mainstream conversation? “And we found that [Taco Bell] was out of sync with culture pretty radically,” he says.

Taco Bell, like many quick-serves, was pitching food as fuel. Something low-cost to stock up on.

If you looked around the guest landscape at the time, though, perception was shifting. Instagram just ignited. People were becoming foodies as chefs crossed over into pop culture. And so the issue with Taco Bell wasn’t necessarily its service, products, or operational kinks; It was its personality.

The brand’s distinctiveness. Relevance. Ability to create buzz in culture. All those ideas were disconnected from a changing guard of diners.

Current Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol served as Taco Bell’s marketing and innovation chief in 2011 when the brand stared down a public relations nightmare. A customer filed suit alleging the chain’s taco mixture was more filler than beef. Despite the suit being withdrawn, the damage was done.

As Muench mentioned, Taco Bell had to rethink where it fit into culture and how people thought of it, and the suit was a good example. Perception was off.

Taco Bell hired interns to run its social media accounts, and began pushing food through Instagram via user-generated content. Niccol oversaw the introduction of breakfast. The effort most recognizably came together with Taco Bell’s “Live Mas” brand campaign in 2012, the Doritos Locos Taco, and the unveiling of its Cantina Bell menu.

Soon, Taco Bell’s irreverence began to be its biggest strength, from menu innovation to the tale of Taco Bell flying a truck to a remote town in Alaska. Storytelling as recognizable, or even bigger, than the brand itself.

And now, it feels natural to hear about couples getting married at Taco Bell’s flagship Cantina in Las Vegas, complete with “sauce packet bouquet,” or to catch movie-style ads featuring celebrities and Nacho Fries.

“We realized we had started creating a system,” says Muench, also the co-founder of consultancy Collider Lab. “And this was in 2011. Greg [Creed] then became CEO globally, and he said let’s take this around the world. And that’s exactly what we did.”

The outline for R.E.D. goes as follows: A brand must have something that is particularly Relevant (R) to a consumer need; that is Easy to get (E); and that stands out as Distinctive in the consumer’s mind (D).

Muench and Creed officially released the book, titled, “R.E.D. Marketing: The Three Ingredients of Leading Brands,” in June, with all proceeds going to the Yum! Brands Foundation. Muench and Creed worked on the project every day for nine months, they say. And neither will see a penny from it.

Creed, who retired as CEO in 2019 (he was head of Taco Bell previously and president and chief concept officer before that), says there are more than 3,000 marketers at Yum!’s collective concepts, which include Pizza Hut, KFC, and The Habit Burger. They wanted to capture and articulate R.E.D. internally for that pool. “Secondly, we also felt if we wrote a really good book it would become a magnet and it would attract bright marketers that wanted to come work at one of the Yum! brands,” Creed says.

As the Taco Bell example suggests, the cornerstones of R.E.D. are cultural and social relevance. Does a brand stand for something that matters to people? Is it a concept you would be proud to brand yourself with? Or does it feel out of date?

These are the questions Muench leads with. And the company has taken the checklist to 15–20 countries, at least, he says, and shifted the foundation of brands to be in line, or ahead, of culture.

Call it the elemental base reason of why a brand exists, he says. How Taco Bell went from food as fuel to experience and herd mentality.

Austin Samuelson, Cofounder, Tacos 4 Life

Greg Creed’s definition of a brand: Something “we use to tell the world who we are.”

When it comes to social relevance, Muench says, brands need to ask if they’re “party-talk worthy.” Is the campaign something a friend at a party would bring up and hold a crowd’s attention with?

“I also look at the difference between social relevance and stunts,” Creed says. “Anyone can do a stunt. But the question is, does the stunt actually help you build sales over night, or drive sales and build the brand over time?”

Remember when Taco Bell “bought” the Liberty Bell on April 1, 1996? The chain purchased full-page advertisements in seven newspapers to announce it acquired and renamed the relic. The Taco Bell Liberty Bell would “still be accessible to the American public for viewing,” the company said at the time. “While some may find this controversial, we hope our move will prompt other corporations to take similar action to do their part to reduce the country’s debt.”

People went a little crazy, to put it mildly. Hundreds of phone calls rained down on the National Park Service. The ad campaign cost about $300,000, according to The Chicago Tribune. But it generated some $25 million worth of advertising, per Taco Bell executives, and sales increased by $600,000 the following day.

“It was an April’s Fool’s joke,” Creed says. “That just goes to demonstrate that people, when you talked about the Liberty Bell stunt, you called it the ‘Taco Bell Liberty Bell stunt’ because you correctly associated it with the brand. And I think that’s the difference.”

Social relevance, essentially, is talk value, Muench chimes in.

“If we sit here and chat about Wendy’s, because they did some crazy thing on Twitter, the likelihood of one of us going to Wendy’s tomorrow just increased,” he says. “Just by the ‘mere mention effect.’”

Muench is referencing a principle that sounds easier at face value than in actual practice. If a marketer can increase people’s discussion about a brand, the guest will be more likely to show up. Good examples of this are IHOP’s decision to “change” its name to IHOb in summer 2018. From the announcement on June 4 through the end of the month, more than 20,000 stories were written about the campaign. It produced north of 36 billion earned media impressions. Social media mentions of IHOP generated potential reach of more than 4 billion people.

And, importantly, IHOP’s burger sales (what the “b” stood for) grew by four times as the chain’s dinner daypart sales mix lifted 200 basis points during the first three weeks of launch.

Another more recent case study is Popeyes’ decision to poke Chick-fil-A with its chicken sandwich launch. No mystery what followed next as the Restaurant Brands International chain ignited a movement that’s blazing still. Popeyes locations average $400,000 more per store than they did pre-chicken sandwich. And to Creed’s point, you can’t talk about the chicken sandwich wars—product launch after product launch—without referencing Popeyes.

“The trick then becomes, are you building a brand that people are going to be happy to belong to that herd of?” Muench says.

In today’s culture, a consumer’s food choice says a lot about them. And that’s no mistake on the part of marketers.

Being vegan or vegetarian is a movement. People who barbecue join social groups with fellow backyard aficionados. Guests who flock to fine-dining relate to the crowd.

“Can you translate these superficial stunts that bring in customers—they absolutely do, by the ‘mere mention’ effect—can you translate that into a more significant brand that has lasting power and will enamor an emerging generation?” Muench says. “That’s really the trick of the whole thing.”

Creed’s definition of a brand: Something “we use to tell the world who we are.”

When you think about the task that way, he adds, and consider what matters to people beyond if they’re hungry or not, it fundamentally changes how you strategize brand creation.

Creed shares a story from early in his career, which he relates in the book’s foreword. In the early 1970s, Creed started out at Unilever, and was given the job of reviving Softly, an Australian washing powder brand.

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For years, the company enjoyed 80 percent share of the market. That changed when radio host Martha Gardener revealed her secret recipe for homemade detergent. A competitor copied it and, within a few months, Softly’s share of the detergent game was down to 50 percent.

Creed says a “bunch of people” were given a shot to turn things around. They tried what they learned in school. Change the pricing. Change the packaging. Reconsider the formula. Colors. And so on.

Creed didn’t realize it then, but his attempt at reviving Softly was his first exercise in cultural relevance. A common quip in Australia is that the country was built on the back of a billion-plus merino sheep, first imported from Spain in the 18th century.

Creed’s answer, understanding that cultural tie, was to create a knitting pattern booklet with a host of iconic Australian images, like kangaroos, the Opera House, emus, and koalas. The book was free with two Softly box tops.

“And to this day, it’s still the largest-ever knitting book sold in Australia,” Creed says.

Creed linked Softly and wool with a knitting book, all built around a cultural anchor that every Australian worth their salt knows how to knit, Creed says. “In hindsight, I think it helped me try to make sure I was always trying to make the brands I was responsible for culturally relevant,” he says.

Muench follows with his own marketing tale. KFC in South Africa was enduring a prolonged dip in sales. It’s a massive brand there—five times or so the size of McDonald’s. Despite growth and history, however, the brand’s performance was headed backward. Like Taco Bell, Yum! couldn’t crack it. So the company sent Muench and another strategist to South Africa for a few weeks. They dug into culture. Checked out competitors. Sat in consumers’ homes for hours each day. Talked to local professors and artists.

What they concluded was KFC fit the bill when South Africa’s “Rainbow Nation” movement emerged in a post-apartheid era. KFC’s family position, buckets, and marketing around togetherness helped the brand capture a broader spirit. And sales exploded. But a new generation ushered in a mindset of individual success, Muench says.

“And because of that, the brand had been disconnected and become culturally less relevant with that younger generation. It still represented, oh, that’s where you go with your parents. Or that’s where you go with your grandparents. It was about old world South African values.”

Once Muench identified that, Yum! repositioned the brand around “independent success,” and tried to appeal to a fresh core of customers. “And success has been nonstop since,” he says.

All of these principles are great, Creed says. But they can’t exist without courage.

Back in 2018, KFC ran out of chicken in the U.K. and was forced to close hundreds of stores following a problem with its suppliers. It took out a full-page ad in the Sun and Metro newspapers showing an empty bucket of chicken with crumbs spilling out. Instead of KFC on the side, the letters were switched around to read, “FCK.”

“Marketing is simple, but not easy,” he adds. “We created this R.E.D. framework to make it easier, and it’s for all marketers.”

“But I think to do great marketing you also have to be courageous. You can follow the R.E.D. framework, but then you have to have the courage to go and do it.”

Business Advice, Customer Experience, Marketing & Promotions, Restaurant Operations, Story, Taco Bell, Yum! Brands