The Story Behind Taco Bell’s In-House Creative Agency

When most people think Taco Bell, they think of one of the most popular quick service Mexican-inspired restaurants in the world – as well as nachos, bean burritos and tacos of course. But in the business landscape, the brand has become synonymous with marketing innovation.

Have you ever seen Taco Bell’s Twitter feed? Or the slick and fun representation of the brand on its website and in advertising across both traditional and digital channels? How about its clothing line, or hotel in Palm Springs? At the heart of all those touchpoints is an in-house agency of about 50 people, who are helping the fast-food giant bring amazing creative into its customer experiences.

Launched in late 2015, the agency (dubbed, “TBD,” which stands for Taco Bell Design) sort of happened serendipitously, joked Tracee Larocca, SVP of advertising and brand engagement at Taco Bell. “We had an external design agency that really wasn’t delivering what we needed, and so we decided to give a project to a few of our in-house creatives and they just knocked it out of the park,” she said. “That’s when we knew that we were on to something.”

According to Tracee, Taco Bell had creatives in-house, working on primarily corporate materials with a wide range of creative and artistic skillsets. Tracee hired Christopher Ayres as executive creative director, and brought them all together to form TBD the new in-house agency.

The agency is set up very much like your typical creative agency, with an account team, operations, project management and creative. Chris believes that going the in-house route was a smart decision because it united an internal group of people that knew the Taco Bell brand best, which resulted in not only creative efficiency, but also fantastic innovation. The tool that has always helped bring their work to life is Adobe Creative Cloud.

According to Chris, Creative Cloud certainly plays a role in helping TBD and the rest of the marketers at Taco Bell rethink how the brand engages with its fans. With Creative Cloud, teams at Taco Bell, and TBD specifically, can design and collaborate on the next generation of Taco Bell customer experiences. Teams are able to create experiences across desktop, web and mobile, collaborate across apps and teams (both internal and external), while reaping the benefits of features powered by Adobe Sensei, Adobe’s artificial intelligence technology. Adobe Creative Cloud, Chris said, is a “huge linchpin for productivity, especially considering we have different teams offsite at shoots, events, or working remotely at any given time.”

Pushing creative boundaries

With the launch of the new in-house agency, Taco Bell also began to test the waters for different forms of expression. For example, in 2017, the brand began creating retail collections, which consisted of products such as fun taco ankle socks, bathing suits donning “born saucy” on them, as well as taco phone cases through its online Taco Shop.

The company’s popup at Comicon in 2018 is another example of its different forms of creative expression of what the brand represents and how its fans and consumers interact with it.

“We have moved from being product marketers to brand marketers and we really lean into this fandom that Taco Bell has,” Tracee said. “People have an irrational love for our brand, and we realize that all we really had to do was fan the flame of that. What the in-house agency unlocked for us was a different way of looking at pedantic things, like packaging for our products, as more of an art form than a functional piece. And that really has played into where the brand was going from a momentum standpoint and was our special sauce that TBD brought to the table.”

Chris’ team is also responsible for the full design of The Bell, a hotel that Taco Bell announced earlier this year. Everything starting from the hotel room card, hangtags (think: “do not disturb”), invitations and the look and feel of the entire place was guided by TBD.

Disrupting design

Three main groups within Taco Bell’s marketing department are essentially TBD’s “clients,” although Chris prefers to call them partners. The formation of TBD was the catalyst for collaboration across these three divisions. “There are lots of conversations going on between teams every day in real time, all at different stages of development,” he said. And while TBD is leading the creative design strategy, it also relies heavily on cross-team collaboration, both within the building and with their external agency partners.

But according to Tracee, unlike some brands who launch internal agencies with a motivating factor of bringing down costs, that wasn’t the strategy for Taco Bell. “Our motivating factor when we brought design in house was to have the best design, and it just happened to be more cost efficient. If your only motivation is to get things done cheaper, you’re likely not going to have a successful in-house agency.”

According to Chris, agility is one of the main benefits of the in-house agency. On the enterprise side, we’ve all been there before: working on a fast turnaround for a last-minute idea. “And there’s something humorously efficient about walking over to the coffee machine and making a new decision on how we want to pivot,” Chris said. He added that the physical logistics of the in-house agency allow the team to move fast when they need to.

In terms of Taco Bell customer experiences of the future, Chris says his team is always thinking about how to use technology to move the needle and what that means from a creative standpoint. He is eyeing augmented and virtual reality as two technologies that have huge potential in bringing the Taco Bell brand to life in creative, diverse ways. His team is also thinking about the meal ordering experience, reimagining the menu and how people place their orders.

“From our inception we’ve been about disrupting conventions,” Tracee said. “Glen Bell opened a taco stand in a world of burger chains and ever since then that’s sort of been in our DNA. And that is really our MO. Where can we disrupt and delight people in a way that is authentically Taco Bell? TBD is helping us figure that out.”