How I Made It: Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol
The gig: Since Jan. 1, Brian Niccol has been chief executive of Taco Bell Corp., the Irvine-based fast-food chain known for menu creations such as Doritos Locos Tacos and Crunchwrap Supremes. Since the first restaurant opened in 1962 in Downey, Taco Bell has expanded to about 6,000 locations and 180,000 employees nationwide.
First business: Niccol, 41, learned some of his earliest lessons while running a lawn-mowing business as a teenager with some friends. The group would get contracts to mow lawns that included residential yards and office park expanses. Early on, he learned that pricing varied by location, and to get a contract, marketing was a must. Niccol would take this idea with him to future jobs. “At the time you do it, you don’t realize how it’s influencing you going forward,” he said. “I think it carries on with you in the subconscious.”
Tech savvy: Technology changed rapidly in the early to mid-1990s while Niccol attended Ohio’s Miami University. During his freshman year, he used a Brother word processor. By his senior year, he had an email address and could make a website. The quickly evolving tools made an impression on him and eventually played a major role at each of his companies. “Technology, if it provides a service and can solve the stress points or anxiety points, people will adopt it in a big way,” Niccol said.
Fresh take: After graduating from college in 1996 with an engineering degree, Niccol took a job at Procter & Gamble Co. to work in brand management. One of his more memorable projects was a Scope mouthwash campaign to send an animated kiss via email — something that had never been done. From that campaign, he said he learned the necessity of taking risks to keep brands young and relevant. “What I’ve always seen is the brands that have a youthful mindset, a youthful vigor, they have a great value proposition,” he said. While working at Procter & Gamble, Niccol earned an MBA from the University of Chicago.
The pizza business: In 2005, Niccol moved to Yum Brands, the parent company of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC. Two years later, he was named chief marketing officer of Pizza Hut and eventually rose to general manager for Pizza Hut USA. At the time, the company was mulling the idea of selling pizzas online, something done only by a company in New Zealand. Niccol thought online ordering had two big benefits — convenience and accuracy — and decided to try it out. “Today, all the big pizza companies are huge in the online space,” he said. “It just shows the power of technology.”
Forever young: Niccol joined Taco Bell in 2011 as its chief marketing and innovation officer. From the beginning, he said he thought it was a brand with a “youthful spirit that was ripe to unlock.” He started by changing the company’s slogan from “Think outside the bun” to “Live mas.” Just by changing a few words, the company repositioned itself from “food is fuel” to “food is an experience,” which has since been a “rallying cry” for innovation, he said. From there, he improved Taco Bell’s digital marketing, and the budget increased from $1 million when he started at the company to $70 million today.
With items such as the Quesarito and XXL Grilled Stuft Burritos, as well as the addition of breakfast foods to the menu, the company has gained a reputation for attracting millennials — a profitable demographic craved by many fast-food chains. “If you let the brand get old, you will die,” Niccol said. “That means you deliver experiences that really matter to the current generation.”
Favorite food: Of all the menu items, Niccol’s favorite is the Cheesy Gordita Crunch, a flatbread slathered in cheese and wrapped around a crunchy taco. He usually orders two. “It’s got everything that’s great about Taco Bell,” Niccol said. “It has cheesy, beefy, crunchy, it’s melted, it’s just awesome.”
What’s next: Niccol said the company would continue to innovate and plans to release new products including the Quesalupa and Cap’n Crunch Delights, which he described as cereal in a doughnut hole. The company also plans to launch a loyalty program and get into the delivery space. “You’ll see the Taco Bell brand starting to evolve even in the restaurants we build,” he said. “We want to be accessible to everybody whether you’re in an urban or suburban world.”
Family fans: Niccol lives in Newport Beach with Jennifer, his wife of 14 years, and their three children, ages 4, 8 and 10. He said it’s too early to tell whether any of them will follow him into the food industry, though his 8-year-old son loves Chicken Quesaritos. “I think they all have a very creative spirit,” Niccol said. “If you’ve got a creative spirit, it definitely is a great place to find your trade.”