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Taco Bell thinks chasing serial numbers might be “fun.”

Taco Bell will feed you for life, sort of.Is it fun to hunt for serial numbers, so that you can spend $216 a year for 46 years at Taco Bell (which is what the prize dubbed “Taco Bell Food for Life” works out to)?

Maybe it looks a little bit fun.

It’s certainly easy to mock, starting with the implied 46-year life expectancy. It also might just seem like too much work for a nation full of busy people. That same nation rejected a nationwide hunt when Burger King tried it years ago. Maybe things have changed since then. It’s only worth mentioning because IT IS A TERRIFYING TALE THAT CAUSED BURGER KING PROFITS TO DROP 40% which even if it’s ancient history is worth learning a lesson from, maybe.

Or maybe human nature is still guiding us toward the path of least resistance when it comes to sweepstakes and prizes. McDonald’s Monopoly is still probably the gold standard for slightly-involving-but-mostly-passive games. I expect there are a few lessons this Taco Bell “fun” might end up teaching us:

1. Make sure your prize is relevant—which “Taco Bell for Life” is.

2. Make sure your prize is appealing—which “Taco Bell for Life” is for their die-hard fans, but how many die-hard-and-sooner-than-necessary fans (see? it’s an easy joke; cross-reference the following lesson) really exist, who have time to search for serial numbers on dollar bills?

3. Make sure your prize or set-up doesn’t give people an opportunity to mock you. Or else be ready for it and totally at ease with it. I assume a hip brand like Taco Bell is.

4. Make sure both your window of time and your geographic locations are sufficiently controlled, so it doesn’t drag out. Taco Bell has done pretty well here: 11 days, and focussed on 11 cities. Having it mostly play out on YouTube is a decent choice for the people who have the time and drive to search for these bills, and if it goes all BK-Herb, the damage is somewhat limited (as long as it gets shared enough to get the word out, which only time will tell if that’s happening).

5. Make sure it sounds like fun. In the end, I’m dubious about this—the prize is fun/funny in that easy-to-make-jokes-about way, I suppose, but looking for serial numbers seems awfully tedious. It sounds like investigative journalism.

I’ll bet you a week’s worth of Taco Bell food (a little less than five bucks, according to their calculus) that this whole thing just quietly fades away.

Personality Test – Please React To The Following Statement About Five Guys:

“Five Guys is testing milk shakes with mix-ins, and one of the mix-ins is bacon.”

Wait at least seven seconds, while looking at this chart.

Five Guys Tests Milk Shake Mix-Ins. Or is it Milkshake?

Now, choose one of these predetermined responses, which by my calculations are the only possible reactions to the news:

1. Those five clever guys have blown the doors off the milk shake category with this revolutionary concept of adding bacon to an ice cream product.

2. Bacon is funny. Haha. No, I would not like to try some.

3. I would try it right now, standing right where I am today. I would drink it all. I cannot have enough bacon in my life/gut.

4. I suppose it’s interesting but I don’t want meat in my shake.

5. It’s been done, but okay. I bet they do a good job with it.

6. Are we still talking about bacon? I’m bored.

If you answered #1, you’re possibly not paying very much attention to the fast food category, which means your personality type is “spacey enthusiast.”

If you’re saying your answer is #2, then your barometer for when a joke has run its course is very broken, and you probably listen to classic rock stations that play the same 20 songs every day without explanation or apology. Your personality is “friendly but insensitive.”

Three, I gotta respect. Your personality type is “unwavering obsessive” and that probably isn’t limited to bacon. Rock on, although I’m hoping said rock isn’t segueing right now between .38 Special and Skynyrd, with “More Than A Feeling” by the fresh new faces of Boston coming up after the commercials to kick off another ten song rock block.

Number #4 answerers are probably healthy and often have the expression on their face like they smell something rotting. Their personality type is “restrained conservative.”

Number #5, you’re probably the most well-adjusted person on this test. Because you’re right, bacon is done to death, but yeah, these five fellows know a thing or two about bacon and serving food people like. So your personality type is “fully aware yet tolerant optimist.”

But Number #6, you have the most of my sympathy. When I wrote this article for Food & Drink magazine, then recycled it for the blog, then recycled it for my book, the guy helping me keep my book on track—friend of the blog Adam—wondered aloud, “Hasn’t the bacon thing run its course?” And because there’s good advice in that Food & Drink article besides making bacon jokes, I said, ”Maybe, but I think it’s still got good advice besides making bacon jokes.” And his expression back at me translated as, “I disagree, but I’ve made my point, and since I’m a Fully Aware Yet Tolerant Optimist then I guess I just gotta let you do what you wanna do.” That was over a year ago. I’d probably still put the list in the book, but that’s because #6 personality types are kind of lazy sometimes. But overall, today, I’m bored with all the bacon jokes I used to find amusing.

Sorry, Personality Type #2. I am.

I bet Personality Types #1, #3, and #5 would drive with you to a location where Five Guys is testing this, and you guys could jam to Foreigner 8-track tapes all the way there.

Should you prank your customers? Tim Horton’s says yes.

Let’s compare pranks. Here’s the latest, and it’s from the polite Canadians who run Tim Horton’s, which according to Wikipedia was Canada’s largest fast food service at the end of 2013, besting even those honest confessors over at McDonald’s Canada.

I don’t know about you, but the whole time I was watching, all I could think was, “Who reassured those people it was okay to go into a totally black hole? Who would walk into a blackened restaurant like that? Certainly not two old ladies.” So here’s Rule #1 of your prank:

1. Don’t leave out crucial details in the re-telling, or you create suspicion around the whole thing.

Secondly, I thought it was nice and simple, and not mean, which is good, but someone might have missed an opportunity to make it about something relevant to the restaurant itself.

2. Keep it simple, but see if you can make it about something that’s associated with your restaurant. “Dark” just announces that Tim Horton’s has dark roast coffee, in the end; it’s not that interesting in and of itself.

If you make it too much about yourself, you risk nobody “biting” on your prank: when Burger King pranked customers by renaming itself Fries King, you could hear the yawn from space. Shuttle astronauts actually reported hearing a gigantic yawn. Amazing.

I got this photo from USA Today, who says you can buy T-shirts with a “Fries King” logo.  It’s not clear whether they sell you a shirt if you tell them you’re only going to wear it ironically.

I got this photo from USA Today, who says you can buy T-shirts with a “Fries King” logo. It’s not clear whether they sell you a shirt if you tell them you’re only going to wear it ironically.

3. Don’t make the prank about yourself in a boring way.

But if you can understand where your brand sits in the mind of the consumer, and toy with that, you can come up with a pretty good prank. Starbucks knows everybody thinks its cup-size-nomenclature is pretentious so it self-effacingly tweaked itself a few years ago; and Burger King used to know what people loved about them, and came up with the best prank ever in the history of restaurant pranks—The Whopper Freakout, which toyed with people’s real-life, actual love for their burgers. Their left-handed burger was also pretty great.

4. As you try to make the ad relevant to yourself, and “ownable,” try making it about your customers, and how they actually feel.

If possible, of course, it’s fun to make fun of the competition and prank them instead of your customers. McDonald’s recently made an easy target for both Taco Bell and Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr.

5. See if you can take your competition down a peg with your prank.

Of course, Canadians have a reputation for being nice, and might not like that last one. Which is why this other Tim Horton’s prank might be the perfect Canadian prank:

And, if all else fails, make an outrageous, darkly believable claim and hope for the best. In the only prank to seriously rival The Whopper Freakout, Taco Bell suckered a lot of people into buying the premise because it’s so wonderfully cynical. It happened in the mid-90s, but is just as juicy today:

Taco Bell buys the Liberty Bell

6. Be wonderfully cynical and play off the skeptical disappointment with which most people approach the world.

Basically, in the end, try to make it about something people care about—not just a pun or some convenient, self-referential thing about yourself. Remember: the first thing a person asks of every marketer (even while they’re admitting that ‘Okay, ya got me’) is a selfish, self-interested question: “Why should I care?”

And I continue to blog for the NRA, where the “R” stands for RESTAURANT. RESTAURANT, people, RESTAURANT.

Every week (or so—sometimes I run out of time and it’s not quite as regular) I contribute a piece to the blog for National Restaurant Association Show.

“Someone just handed me this box of water! I love Chicago!!” is what I’m thinking as I took this shot, swept up in the Show atmosphere. Besides, that is a pretty interesting box on which some clever restaurant’s branding might be crying to live.

“Someone just handed me this box of water! I love Chicago!!” is what I’m thinking as I took this shot, swept up in the party atmosphere as I wait in line for the NRA Show shuttle bus outside my hotel. Besides, that is a pretty interesting box on which some clever restaurant’s branding might be crying to live.

It came about when I offered to help the National Restaurant Association in some capacity, and they said, “Well, what if you wander the floor at the 2014 Show [which happened this spring] and talk to people about what they’re learning, and then also just take note of anything you see that’s interesting.” The idea is if people can see ongoing examples of the stuff that happens at the show, it will recruit even more attendees next year.

So you can check out what I’ve written for them, if you like, by clicking on the links in the previous paragraph.

This was the latest one I contributed, and I’m putting it here because they can’t use it—apparently, the guy I’m writing about was not an exhibitor. He was a rogue!! And in fairness to their exhibitors, of course, they can’t encourage rogues.

Rogue Boxed Water Sales Dude! Maverick! Scofflaw!

Rogue Boxed Water Sales Dude! Doesn’t he just look like a rogue? I should have known.

So anyway, here’s something that happened to me at the NRA Show, that I thought was intriguing.

“EXPLORING THE FLOOR: DISCOVERING BOXED WATER”

August 11, 2014  |  Posted by Charlie Hopper, guest blogger

It might be a little more accurate to file this under “Exploring The Shuttle Stop,” although if you’re willing to be liberal with the term “floor,” I was definitely within the invisible dome over downtown Chicago created by the NRA Show, waiting for the bus that would take me and a bunch of other showgoers from our hotel to McCormick Place.

A clever man who turned out to be named Matt Merson, VP of Sales for Boxed Water, was walking up and down the line of people waiting for the bus, which typically takes a few minutes to arrive. He was handing out boxes of water. The lightly waxed (or otherwise coated) cardboard boxes were the shape of a quart of milk, but shrunk down to hold about 16 ounces of water (it doesn’t have the ounces marked, so I’m estimating). The top is just like one of those little boxes of milk you’d get in kindergarten.

Even though Matt is a pretty willful sales presence, the little box immediately evokes nostalgia.

“Boxed water. No plastic,” he was repeating to the people standing in the NRA Show shuttle bus line. “Better for the environment. Easier to store…”

I thanked him as he handed me mine, and asked him what people were telling him about the boxed water. “Well, I’m not a fashion guy,” he said. He was wearing one of those shirts with a collar and the logo of the company over his heart, where another shirt might have an Izod alligator or something, so, okay. “But people who do know design really like the design of the packaging, and the possibilities…”

I nodded. The box is off-white with bold, san-serif font type that reads, boldly, “Boxed Water Is Better.” Its blankness sort of reminded me of those generic products of the seventies. It was a blankness that was crying out for some kind of artwork.

On the bus, I turned to the guy behind me. “Have you seen these?”

The guy was Roger Brandes of Willy’s Mexican Grill. “Yeah. No plastics.”

“Yeah, so it’s environmental, then. Is that important to you?”

He looked like maybe he thought I would think it should be important to him but if he wasn’t going to lie to me, maybe it was only a little important and in the end not that important. He didn’t say that, it’s just the impression I got. “I mean, look at it,” he said. “You could brand your concept with it, it’s something you could brand. Everyone’s looking for different ways to make a statement.”

I agreed with that. I was turning the box over in my hand and we were both looking at it as the bus bounced its way toward the Show.

“It’s kind of the blinding flash of the obvious,” he said, smiling wryly. I started writing that down and smiling. He said it again, reflectively. “The blinding flash of the obvious.”

The Blinding Flash of the Obvious.

“The Blinding Flash of the Obvious,” says Roger Brandes of Willy’s Mexican Grill on the dimly lit shuttle bus which bounced a lot and made his photo blurry because, ironically—and this is just how perfectly life sets up ironic puns sometimes—I was not using a blinding flash, obviously.

 

If Subway ever gets their act together, we’re all in trouble.

They’re the largest restaurant on our moist little Earth, according to the latest stats I could find.

They could spend more, engage more, speak more clearly, be more places, be more period—they could focus, and own the world.

Instead, they steer all over the road and inadvertently reveal how clumsy they are in social media. Recently, though, they appear to have had a bunch of productive marketing meetings and decided to focus on a true strength—good for them. But the resulting ads look like they’re visiting us from 1979.

Strategically, I couldn’t agree more whole-heartedly that this commercial illustrates their advantage, and their success. This is Subway’s point of difference, their reason to believe, their unique selling proposition. They’re a convenient, inexpensive, true alternative to America’s fatal attraction to fast food.

Basically, they win in several Marketing Moments (um, if you’ll recall, I wrote a book on this and go in-depth on the topic of Marketing Moments; see Selling Eating, Chapter 9, “Marketing the Moment: Dividing A Consumer’s Experience Into Eighteen Separate Opportunities,” available as an ebook for Kindle, Nook and iPad; or as a book-book on Amazon).

But that ad. That ad, that ad. It’s insulting. It’s an unnecessarily blunt instrument and utterly ignorable, almost impossible, in fact, to pay attention to—one’s eyes gloss as the mind wanders. Their point is excellent: do they really chop those onions every morning that I’m ordering in the afternoon? Cool. But Good God, that’s hammy, horrible, stiff, fake, fake, fake spokesmodel casting and directing, and the cheesiest, cheapest-looking production this side of your local Pub ’n Grub. Good God, Largest Chain in The World.

Look. If you would just stay focussed for a minute. Let’s say your current strategy is right (I think it is). If you trusted creative duties to truly discriminating people—people who didn’t strand you with a funny ad that doesn’t appeal to large swaths of your base, but who were able to help you deliver an engaging ad that reflects modern sensibilities and is part of a larger effort to establish, uphold, and extend your brand—your company would be like Asian carp in the great lakes. You could eat up almost anything you came across.