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Taco Bell's "Meat-less" Defense: A Lesson in What Not To Do

Last Updated May 31, 2011 12:12 AM EDT

By Ira Kalb

It's every company's nightmare: a widely publicized class action suit attacking the organization's signature product. Recently Taco Bell was hit with a class action suit for false advertising, alleging that its taco "seasoned ground beef" doesn't meet USDA requirements and is actually only 35% beef. The suit claims internal company documents refer to it as "taco meat filling." The press had a field day, with even the Colbert Report devoting a segment to the suit.
With this lawsuit receiving so much attention, what did Taco Bell do? They gave even more publicity to the accusations, publishing a sassy denial in a national ad campaign (and on their web site). "Thank you for suing us," it read. "Here's the truth about our seasoned beef."

Which succeeded in only bringing more attention to the lawsuit. There was a flood of Twitter posts deriding Taco Bell's "mystery meat" and supposed ingredients like "bone fillers" and "dusting agents." Such chatter might cause already skeptical consumers to wonder about what else might be in a taco that costs 99¢.

So what should Taco Bell have done?

If the allegations are true, the company needs to cut its losses and admit the mistake and apologize. Then propose a solution so it will not happen again.

But assuming the allegations aren't true, as Taco Bell insists? Good branding is based on knowing your audience and focusing on creating an image of your products that fill their needs better than competitors. Rather than draw attention to the lawsuit and its charges, focus on the benefits the company provides to the loyal customers.

What makes this situation even more ridiculous is that most Taco Bell customers know they are not getting health food. And they don't care. Here are some blog comments from customers.

"if it smells like beef, if it looks like beef, if it tastes like beef, if it feels like beef its freaken beef!"
"mmm..taco bell is sooo good...i think it fell from heaven.."
"As long as they taste good I don't care that much."
So here is what Taco Bell should have done:
  • Don't publicize the allegations, even by issuing denials
  • Promote the opposite of what the suit says without mentioning the allegations, and
  • Provide independent credible 3rd-party proof to support step two.
But, Taco Bell did one thing right. Greg Creed, President of Taco Bell, appeared in a good video on You Tube, called "Of Course We Use Real Beef," in which Creed manages to extol the beef in its tacos-without mentioning the lawsuit.

Now if he could only do the same in the company's print ads.

How do you think Taco Bell should have responded to the attack on its image?

Ira Kalb is president of Kalb & Associates, an international consulting and training firm, and professor of marketing at the Marshall School of Business at University of Southern California (USC). He has won numerous awards for marketing and teaching, authored ten books and over 30 articles, created marketing inventions that have made clients and students more successful. He is frequently interviewed by various media for his expertise in branding, crisis management and strategic marketing.
  • Ira Kalb

    Ira Kalb is president of Kalb & Associates, an international consulting and training firm, and professor of marketing at the Marshall School of Business at University of Southern California. He has won numerous awards for marketing and teaching, authored ten books and created marketing inventions that have made clients and students more successful. He is frequently interviewed by various media for his expertise in branding, crisis management and strategic marketing. Follow him on Twitter at @irakalb