Taco Bell Refocuses on Hungry Young Males

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Taco Bell Corp. on Wednesday introduced a $200-million advertising campaign--replete with pink-clad wrestlers and Chihuahua dogs--that's designed to build sales among 18- to 24-year-old males who dominate the fast-food market.

The quirky campaign designed by new Taco Bell advertising agency TBWA Chiat/Day marks a significant change for the chain, which had been pitching its fare at a broader market with the "Nothing Ordinary About It" campaign.

Taco Bell also said there are no immediate plans to incorporate the celebrity pitchman and NBA basketball star, Shaquille O'Neal, into the campaign.

Vada Hill, Taco Bell's newly appointed chief marketing officer, said the chain doesn't need to sell consumers on what it has to offer. "It's not that they're not coming to our restaurants," Hill said. "It's just that we want them to come more often."

The advertising--which uses a kitschy pink room to represent the stomach--will try to catch consumers' eyes and ears with humor designed to make viewers think about Taco Bell when they're hungry.

"The challenge isn't getting this core group to eat fast food," Hill said. "The challenge is getting them to turn right into a Taco Bell as they drive down fast-food row instead of McDonald's or Burger King."

The campaign that premiered Wednesday is designed to rejuvenate sales at Taco Bell, the PepsiCo Inc. subsidiary that revolutionized the fast-food industry during the late 1980s with its low-cost menu and new kitchen equipment.

Taco Bell has stumbled in recent years, and by one important industry standard--sales at stores open for at least a year--the company has been losing ground. Same-store sales fell by 2% in 1995 and 4% in 1996. But this week, Taco Bell reported a 2% increase in same-store sales for the second quarter.

Industry observers say that Taco Bell faltered in recent years as its advertising and marketing gradually shifted toward a more general audience--and away from its most important customers, the hungry young males who drive fast-food sales.

"You can't give up on your core group," said a Carlsbad-based restaurant industry consultant, Hal Sieling. "There's a long list of companies who got hurt by trying to go after new consumers and ended up forgetting about their core."

The new ad campaign includes a tag line: "Want Some?" And it offers a guarantee: "You'll love it or we'll eat it." Taco Bell said it would offer to replace customers' food if complaints arise.

Taco Bell, with 6,800 restaurants in 17 countries, reported systemwide sales of $4.7 billion in 1996. The chain--along with Pizza Hut and KFC--is being sold to investors by PepsiCo Inc., which is withdrawing from the restaurant business to concentrate on its soft drink and snack businesses.

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