Yes, making gains at breakfast is nice. So is the fact that nobody talks about the hit job on Taco Bell's beef from a while back. But now the Yum! Brands stalwart is finally getting the kind of feedback that brand stewards really have been craving all along: Americans are mentioning "Taco Bell" in the same jalapeno-laced breath as "Chipotle." Thanks largely to the Cantina Bell menu that it introduced in July, Taco Bell perceptions are climbing among American consumers, according to new research by the YouGov BrandIndex.
Created by celebrity chef Lorena Garcia — featured on the recent season of Top Chef Masters on Bravo, which hyped her Taco Bell tie-in during commercial breaks —the chain's new Cantina Bell menu brings eight new ingredients to Taco Bell including whole black beans, cilantro rice and fire-roasted corn salsa — exactly the sorts of staples that have garnered Chipotle's fresh-Mex menu such high regard. Garcia even recently visited fields in California to show where and how Taco Bells gets its cilantro.
"This is good news for Taco Bell because it looks like the new menu is the primary driver of higher quality perceptions," said Ted Marzilli, SVP of YouGov BrandIndex, which stated in its assessment of the Taco Bell vs. Chipotle battle:
Taco Bell has seen its quality perception soar all summer long since debuting its upscale Cantina menu in early July under the auspices of chef Lorena Garcia. The chain’s quality perception score has moved close to Chipotle’s levels since Labor Day and is staying there. Taco Bell’s perception success with Mexican food eaters has allowed it to keep pace with, and even rise above, the top national quick-service restaurant (QSR) chains’ average.
Cantina Bell isn't the only promotion the Taco Bell brand, which turns 50 this year, has going on: The brand is still inviting Americans to enter its "Live Mas to Win Mas" Facebook contest (a social promotion for its new "Live Mas!" tagline) that asks for participants to submit photos of "you Living Mas with Doritos Locos Tacos." And it is testing a new exterior design that gives the Taco Bell facade a purple glow.
So concerned is hedge-fund investor David Einhorn about Taco Bell's long-term threat to Chipotle that he recently announced he has shorted Chipotle's stock, raising eyebrows, swaying some investors and sparking a debate.
Of course, Chipotle is hardly standing still. As Halloween approaches, the brand is holding its popular annual "Boorito" fundraiser again, in which Chipotle customers on October 31 in a costume will be treated to a $2 menu item — with Chipotle donating up to $1 million to its Cultivate pro-sustainability foundation.
Many doubt that Taco Bell can actually mount a serious long-term threat to the mass QSR fresh-Mex market that Chipotle essentially has carved out along with a few others, including Baja Fresh and Qdoba. For example, in a new survey of food preferences, despite the debut of its Cantina menu, Taco Bell placed dead last in every category except "value," according to Market Force. Chipotle was at the top.
Taco Bell will always want to be known as the "value" leader, of course. It just would like to place higher in the "food quality/taste" category. And Cantina Bell still may be the way to do that.