How Taco Bell’s CMO Harnessed the Power of Snapchat, Bots and the Super Bowl

Adweek’s 2016 Brand Genius winner for restaurants

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It would be understandable for a marketer who hails from the glamorous world of beauty to be a little self-conscious about moving to a fast-food brand known for late-night snack binges by college kids. Prior to becoming Taco Bell’s CMO, Marisa Thalberg spent years at legendary cosmetic companies like Revlon, Unilever and Estée Lauder.

Robert Ascroft

But since January, her business has been strictly burritos and Crunchwraps.

“Are you implying that [Taco Bell] is not a natural career transition?” Thalberg deadpans, before explaining that the worlds of cosmetics and convenience foods are not as different as they might seem. “I went from brands and products rooted in culture to brands and products rooted in culture, from products people crave to products people crave,” she says.

Though Thalberg is less than a year into her tenure, she’s proven that she understands those commonalities. Take the Quesalupa, a Chalupa with a cheese-filled shell that the CMO describes as “pretty epic.” The Quesalupa, available for a limited time, launched with much fanfare on Super Bowl Sunday this year. With a creative assist from the Los Angeles office of Deutsch, Thalberg led the development of “Bigger Than Futbol.” The star-studded spot, featuring Houston Rockets point guard James Harden and Brazilian soccer legend Neymar, became one of the most popular ads in the game. (Thalberg’s team was also behind a 90-second version on YouTube and regional spoof ads featuring local business owners.)

The heart of the campaign (which notched 1.2 billion media impressions) was the understanding that the Quesalupa was, as Thalberg sees it, akin to fast fashion: “fun, trendy, interesting and different. We were playful and didn’t take ourselves too seriously.”

The humorous spot became its own cultural moment (among the things the Quesalupa was to be bigger than: Tinder, virtual reality and hoverboards)—but it was hardly the only one. Just in time for Cinco de Mayo, Thalberg unveiled Taco Bell’s first Snapchat lens. It turned users’ heads into hard-shell tacos. It also snagged an incredible 224 million users in a single day. According to Snapchat, it was the most popular lens ever created on the platform.

Thalberg credits her young, in-house colleagues for such accomplishments. “Taco Bell got in to the Snapchat platform early, and we’re constantly pushing for our storytelling to deliver in creative ways,” she says. But for visualizing and guiding that delivery, Deutsch executive creative director Brett Craig credits Thalberg. “Marisa is very passionate about creative,” he says. “She likes to roll her sleeves up, debate the conceptual thinking and interrogate it with the agency. This has the effect of strengthening and crystallizing the vision for the work. She truly is an all-around thinker.”

And on the topic of thinking, Thalberg also took Taco Bell’s marketing into the realm of artificial intelligence. In another project with Deutsch, Taco Bell launched the TacoBot, a Siri-like bot on Slack that takes your Taco Bell order and answers taco-related questions. Although still in beta mode, the effort has already paid off. TacoBot, which cost $40,000 to build, yielded $10 million in advertising value.

Like so much else of what Thalberg has cooked up, an intelligent, interactive taco feels a long way from her former life as a cosmetics marketer. But for this CMO, that’s the beauty of it.

“It took bravery on the part of Taco Bell to bring somebody with my background on,” she concedes, “but that’s what made it so appealing.”

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This story first appeared in the October 24, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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@ChristineBirkne Christine Birkner is a Chicago-based freelance writer who covers marketing and advertising.