As a brand, Taco Bell has maintained the mantle of a playful provocateur, with many associating the brand only with cheesy menu items (and stunts). But Global Chief Brand Officer Marisa Thalberg wants to deepen and expand that story. Read on to learn about Taco Bell’s under-the-radar purpose-driven programs, her self-aware approach to brand, and how she balances work and life while staying inspired.
Aaron Kwittken: You went from cosmetics and beauty to Taco Bell, which if you look at it from a brand standpoint, isn’t a huge leap, but from a category standpoint, it feels like one. How did that happen?
Marisa Thalberg: The unexpectedness of going from luxury beauty in New York to QSR in California made it that much more interesting for me. I think it speaks highly of Taco Bell, and perhaps also of me, that we were willing to take this mutual chance on each other and saw opportunities in going against a straight from the industry hire. At the time, it was much more of a weighty decision to move our family from New York to California than the luxury beauty to Taco Bell part. But we managed all of it pretty well and it’s been an incredible journey of leveraging the amazing talent and institutional knowledge within Taco Bell, and galvanizing around a bigger vision to expand and translate the brand.
Kwittken: Take me to that call or the email that says, I know you’ve had a great career at Estée Lauder, but we want you to interview at Taco Bell.
Thalberg: I actually do distinctly remember it because it was a very cold, blustery, New York winter day and I was walking between meetings and had to duck into an office lobby to take the call. I asked, where is Taco Bell? And they said, Irvine, California. In the past that has been a deal breaker for me. I really didn’t envision us relocating, but there was something about the size and strength of the Taco Bell brand that captured my imagination. Although we are opening a bunch of new locations, at the time we weren’t really that present in New York so I’ll admit I didn’t know the brand very well as a consumer. Without even being a regular customer, there was something about the brand that interested me.
Kwittken: Do you have a favorite menu item now that you’re nearly four years into it?
Thalberg: One of our most iconic products is the Crunchwrap, but lately I’ve been customizing mine and swapping out beef for black beans. We are actually the first QSR certified by the American Vegetarian Association and there are so many great ways to eat vegetarian at Taco Bell. A lot of vegetarians know about it, but even for people that may not be vegetarians but don’t always want to eat meat, you can go for delicious beefy, cheesy goodness at Taco Bell, or you can have a really substantial vegetarian meal. It’s one of the cool parts of the Taco Bell story we’re still working on telling and I want to help do a better job of. So lately that’s been my favorite – a black bean Crunchwrap.
Kwittken: I feel like the brand has permission to be provocative. At the same time, we’re in this environment where it’s easier to offend almost anyone. Taco Bell has been very successful at maintaining that mantle, and being on the edge without offending (so far). How was that considered for the recent campaign around Taco Bell’s opening in London and Big Ben, and all your campaigns?
Thalberg: I appreciate that as a comment. There’s a certain amount of luck involved, because you never really exactly know how people will react, but it’s not all luck in that we’re very thoughtful and self-aware about what we do.
You’ll notice it in the way we went to market with the Big Ben campaign. By bringing our bell to help London’s bell, it wasn’t meant to make anyone feel bad or raise anxiety. The way it was executed had a sweetness to it, even though it was playful. It was a way of saying, hey, we’re on your doormat and we’re here to help, in a fun, stunt-y way. We wanted to be respectful of what an important icon Big Ben is, especially as newcomers to the market, and not as a U.K.-based brand. Striking the right tone when you’re playing in culture and doing something with a little bit of wit and wink to it makes all the difference. Tone in these things can be everything.
Kwittken: Taco Bell’s Live Más scholarship program has awarded nearly $6M to 600 students to date. Yet, most people don’t think of Taco Bell as being purpose-driven. Can you talk about how the program came to be and make your case for why Taco Bell is a purpose-driven brand?
Thalberg: When you think about brands as people with personalities, just as people are constantly evolving, brands are, too. As a brand, Taco Bell is very uniquely cool and in culture, while not taking ourselves too seriously and striking that balance. I think that’s set us apart. So that’s the good side.
The bad side is maybe we haven’t gone as far as we need to in making people understand the heart of the brand. The heart is in there, it’s more a question of building a real understanding and awareness without looking like we’re suddenly getting self-congratulatory. I want to make it really clear that purpose is as much a part as who we are as when we launch a Naked Chicken Chalupa.
Supporting young people’s dreams through education has been a longstanding commitment for Taco Bell. There’s a part of our brand that’s always felt a bit like an “other kid,” or a creative underdog. The Live Más scholarship finds young people who may not have the means to pursue a dream that doesn’t fit traditional scholarship models, like athletic scholarships. We created the scholarship to believe in and invest in these kids but also focus all our work over the years into one signature effort. Through the program, we award fellowships to fans of the brand who have a unique dream. We also have a program for our team members and employees, that includes a GED certification program and scholarship. The videos when we tell an employee in the restaurant that they’ve earned a $10,000 scholarship are some of my favorites.
Even the application process is non-traditional. We’re about people whose talents and ability to express themselves come in all different forms, so we ask them to create a two-minute video about what they love to do. Not about their GPA, not about a test. We’re ahead of our schedule to award $10M in scholarships by 2022 and we plan to double that commitment.
There’s also our Feed the Beat program. This is a music program we’ve had since 2006, where bands on tour apply and we feed them while they’re on the road. The points is that these bands aren’t yet famous, but they’re touring, and we found that many of them don’t have a lot of money yet, and would feed themselves at Taco Bell on the road. In the program, we give them gift cards to do this, no strings attached. Over the years, some of these bands have become quite famous, like Imagine Dragons and WALK THE MOON, and they never forget that Taco Bell fed them when they were just trying to make it. That’s an example of how our brand cares about creators and people who have dreams and passions. The program is still ongoing, and we have a pretty big alumni class of more than 1,500 bands.
Kwittken: You work with International Women’s Media Foundation. Could you talk about your work with the Board and how that inspires and empowers you?
Thalberg: To be really honest, that one was tricky for me. I wasn’t totally sure I was a good fit in the sense that it’s typically been people one click or so closer to journalism. I’ve always had a passion for journalism, I even had a very short career as a TV producer in my twenties, but I didn’t know if I would have anything to contribute. But they really did want my lens again and I’ve been on their Board for about two years. And boy, what an interesting time to be a part of it. It does connect to this thread in my life of wanting to support women with careers and navigating that complexity. Some of these women reporters are literally putting themselves in harm’s way to make sure that truth and information and storytelling is enabled.
Kwittken: Last question. What are you most proud of in your life and in your career?
Thalberg: This might not be the most original answer, but for me it’s the most truthful. I’m really proud of the fact that my husband and I are raising good human beings and of the people my daughters are becoming. When I started my blog Executive Moms, I was very early in my own journey as a mother trying to grapple with having a big career and being a parent. Now, I almost get to slip to closer to the end of the story book and am realizing that I was able to navigate through these formative years when my daughters were growing up. They’re my ultimate proof point that it is possible to be a great parent and great executive and make it all work and not feel horrible about it.
On a work level, I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been able to do things that surprise people in good ways. Work feels most gratifying to me when I’ve connected dots in ways that people haven’t seen and helped unleash creativity in people that they might not have felt they were allowed to unleash before. When we all feel delighted by the headlines we get, it’s usually because someone had an idea, and other people got behind it, and we worked together and knocked down the barriers to do it. Those are the good days for me. I love that my team makes fun of me and I know that sounds silly, but it means we’ve gotten to a point of comfort and authenticity with each other. It’s important because you can’t be creative if you don’t feel you’re in a safe place.