Taco Bell fights back with transparency

Jan. 30, 2011 | by Alicia Kelso

Although the class action lawsuit over Taco Bell’s beef authenticity was brought forth a week ago, the meat drama has only just begun.

The suit, introduced last Monday by an Alabama-based law firm, claims the chain’s “seasoned beef” ads mislead consumers because its products only contain a fraction of what they portend. It was filed on behalf of all consumers.

Even though many consider the case to be frivolous, the situation has already affected the chain’s brand perception.

According to YouGov BrandIndex, which interviews 5,000 people daily from across the country, Taco Bell’s Index scores fell from 25.2 to 11.7 since the suit was filed Jan. 19. It is now below the sector’s average score of 12.2.

Damage control

It’s too early to tell if this perception score will stay down and, if it does, it certainly won’t be because Taco Bell didn’t defend itself.

The company has already released two statements vigorously defending its product and rolled out a Spanish language campaign and an online campaign (via YouTube, Facebook and Taco Bell’s company website) supporting its product.

Also, Friday’s readers of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Orange County Register, San Diego Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle were greeted with a giant “Thank you for suing us” message penned by Taco Bell president Greg Creed.

The chain’s full page ad embraces candor, outlining exactly what its beef filling includes: "We start with USDA-inspected quality beef (88 percent)," said Greg Creed, president of Taco Bell. "Then add water to keep it juicy and moist (3 percent). Mix in Mexican spices and flavors including salt, chili pepper, onion powder, tomato powder, sugar, garlic powder and cocoa powder (4 percent). Combine a little oats, caramelized sugar, yeast, citric acid and other ingredients that contribute to the flavor, moisture, consistency and quality of our seasoned beef."

Social media changes response

Such a barrage of responses from a major company is a rarity and never would have happened a few years ago, said Rhonda Sanderson, owner of Chicago-based public relations firm Sanderson & Associates.

“It’s a sign of the times. Because of social media and ongoing, pervasive news, everyone has to uber-defend themselves about everything and come out in front of it,” she said. “(Taco Bell) is a good solid company, but it doesn’t matter if the case is frivolous or not because of the way everything is out there now. They’re forced to spend a bunch of money defending themselves and with this situation, they made a big point in a very big way.”

Sanderson added that Taco Bell’s response should bode well for the company, but isn’t sure she’d follow the same route.

“I never would have recommended this much of a response – maybe one statement and that’s it. There is still a big percentage of the population that hadn’t heard about this lawsuit until Taco Bell released its statements and ad,” she said. “I have always believed that you don’t make news out of bad news. But, in their defense, they are doing what they have to do. Social media really has caused companies to become overly reactionary and overly defensive.”

Social media’s impact on damage control aside, transparency is a good position for the company to take because quick-service companies play such a big part in Americans’ diets and should be held to a high standard of truth in advertising, according to John F. Banzhaf III, professor of public interest law at George Washington University Law School. Banzhaf helped start the movement of using litigation as a weapon against the obesity epidemic.

Taco Bell is wise not to take the case lightly for other reasons, as well. Banzhaf points out a suit settled against McDonald’s in the early 2000s that was originally considered frivolous. The burger giant, however, was eventually forced to pay $12.5 million and the movie “Super Size Me” was created, causing indelible damage to the brand and the perception of the industry in general.

This isn’t the only class action suit filed against a large company that was counted out prematurely.

"All in all, there have been at least 10 successful fat lawsuits which have forced many major food corporations to make changes in their food or food advertising," Banzhaf said. 

Whether Taco Bell will have to follow this route is yet to be seen. And even though she would have done things differently, Sanderson believes the company is on the right path thus far.

“They’re not taking it lightly and they’re showing everyone that they have nothing to hide or they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing,” she said. “If they really did have something to hide, they wouldn’t have said a word in the first place.”

Check out the many words released by Creed via YouTube:



Topics: Food & Beverage , Health & Nutrition , Legal Issues , Operations Management

Alicia Kelso / Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.
View Alicia Kelso's profile on LinkedIn

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