Taco Bell Thinks “Outside the Bun” to Create Breakthrough Innovation
Back when I was in college, professors frowned upon the idea of borrowing the works of others and passing them off as your own (maybe they still do – I don’t know, I’m old). They called it “cheating,” said it was “wrong” and “unethical.” Not that I would know any of this first-hand, of course.
But if those same professors had wanted to prepare me for the real world of product innovation, their classrooms would have been a cheating frenzy (maybe a “Cheatnado” – and what a great made-for-TV movie that would be, I think I’m going to copyright that one), with the top grade going to the person who turned in the best idea second (because first mover advantage is mainly a lie – a topic to be tackled at another time).
With Doritos Locos Tacos, Taco Bell has proven adept at cribbing the works of others and passing it off as their own (in fairness, they’ve also added a huge dose of technical know-how and marketing savvy to the mix, which are detailed below). They’ve borrowed equity (and flavors) from Doritos; they’ve changed the taco shell rather than changing the filling, patterning their innovation after sandwich shops that rotate bread (and don’t think there’s not some irony in that). Though someone reading this from Taco Bell might be offended by these statements, I actually mean them as the highest compliment. Let me explain.
Doritos Locos Tacos
Taco Bell is clearly a brand that understands it must constantly innovate to reflect the changing tastes and preferences of its young (in their 20s) target market (though, apparently not too young given it recently eliminated its kids’ meals). One such ultimately successful product introduction was the Doritos Locos Tacos. This innovation has a back-story showing the great lengths to which a company will go when it feels it is on the precipice of an innovative breakthrough, even if for a single product, that can raise the entire company’s growth trajectory.
Austin Carr of fastcompany.com profiled Taco Bell’s innovation process for the Doritos Locos Tacos, sharing deep insights into what may seem to be a relatively simple product extension. Under pressure to create a big innovation to coincide with Taco Bell’s 50th anniversary, the company assembled a team for an ideation session. A couple of things stand out about this ideation session.
Collaboration, Not Just Ideation
First, according to Taco Bell CEO Greg Creed, they were focused on “shell” innovation: “If you look at all the buns the burger boys sell, and the bread at Subway, they are forever coming up with a new bread bun. The crunchy taco: It was yellow and made of corn. We sold a couple billion of them, but there had been no innovation.” Think outside the bun, by thinking about the taco equivalent of the bun.
Second, though the session was described as “ideation,” clearly a lot of homework had been done prior to the session. To wit, 30 different product concepts were considered, including an idea actually provided by Doritos-maker Frito-Lay, the now ubiquitous Doritos-based taco shell.
Introduce the Voice of the Consumer
Emboldened by a successful concept test conducted with 200 customers, Taco Bell invested a great deal of resources into getting this idea off the ground. This included a high degree of engineering work to create a shell that would not crack as easily as a chip while still giving you the authentic Doritos “experience” of biting into a “teeth-rattling crunch” and being left with orange dusting all over your fingers. It’s so much better in reality than it sounds when I read what I’ve typed. Trust me on this, I felt the need for multiple samples of “inspiration” during the writing of this article.
Taco Bell and Frito-Lay correctly predicted the success of this product line (700 million sold in the first 100 days and 13% stock increase in one quarter for Taco Bell) and did their best to speed up a naturally slow process. They even launched their co-created product without letting the lawyers bog down the process with the legalese of a written contract (if only we lived in a world where a handshake deal was all that was ever needed).
Relevant and Different Innovation
In many ways, Doritos Locos Tacos provides a blueprint for how to create breakthrough innovation. Focus on different, and relevance will (often) follow. Look to adjacent industries, and see how their big innovations might be transferable to yours. Don’t expect ideas to come out of the oven (so to speak) fully baked, iteration is a necessity. Incorporate consumer feedback earlier rather than later – though internally this was viewed as a winner, this probably wouldn’t have moved into development without the support of consumer feedback. Even the PR is beautiful, using social media to “leak” news of the next flavor (and stealing a page from the hi-tech and entertainment playbook).
And that, my friends, is thinking outside the bun and investing mas to create a successful breakthrough innovation. Crunch on that.
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