From Taco Emojis to Pancakes On Fleek: Fast Food Brands Target Teens On Social Media

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The Taco Emoji Happened
Here are two obvious statements: One, teenagers love fast food. Two, they hate listening to adults. And that’s a real problem if you’re a modern fast food company these days.

Increasingly, fast food companies like Taco Bell, McDonald’s and others are trying very hard with social media to reach teens like me. Over the last few months, I’ve been working with NPR business reporter Sonari Glinton to examine how well some of these campaigns are working. Including asking some of my friends at Youth Radio to weigh in.

While they like a lot the jokes and humor brands are using, Nila Venkat explains what’s going through her head: “It makes me think they are funny on social media. Doesn’t mean I want to eat their hash browns.”

That doesn’t surprise Lauren Johnson, a digital marketing reporter at Adweek. “Social media and millennial marketing is an extremely tough area for brands right now,” said Johnson. “The agencies tend to be a bit older, so they’re trying to understand what the millennials talk about with their friends, and how that can then be translated into marketing that feels that same way.”

On the one hand, what these companies are trying to do isn’t new. Since the birth of modern marketing, companies have been trying to reach the elusive teenager. But, as Sonari points out, back when he was a teen (23 years ago), marketing was a form of one-way communication — companies speaking to teens via TV commercials or an ad in a magazine. But now, new technology has brought new expectations. Teens today expect brands to engage in conversations online 24/7. And some companies are doing a better job than others.

According to a lot of marketing experts, Taco Bell’s laid-back approach is one to watch. But it’s tough to say how much, if any, of their business success is due to their social media savvy. So we decided to go to the belly of the beast — the belly of the bell, if you will — Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, California.

Taco Bell headquarters is as cool as it can be, for you know, a corporate office. At least the break room has a soda fountain, complete with Taco Bell cups. We met up Taco Bell’s chief marketing officer, Marisa Thalberg, in a room they call the fishbowl.

“We have lots of screens where we can see everything that’s going on in social media about the brand and about the world,” Thalberg said of the room, “which is great because it keeps us really plugged in.”

Taco Bell prides itself on being a pioneer in figuring out how to engage with its consumers on social media platforms like Snapchat and Twitter. This past November, taking advantage of the newly created taco emoji, the company launched a social campaign called #TacoEmojiEngine consisting of 600 gifs and photos. Thalberg explained to me how it works.

“If you go to Twitter and you tweet at Taco Bell and type the taco emoji plus any other emoji, you’re going to get tweeted back an original piece of content,” she said. “You could do it right now. Yup, while we’re talking, go to Twitter. Go ahead.”

So we did. One of my producers tweeted a taco and a unicorn emoji. Within seconds, she got a video of a horse eating a taco and turning into a unicorn.

Cool, I thought. But, it doesn’t really make me want to eat Taco Bell.

And that’s the thing — Just because a brand makes teens laugh, doesn’t mean they’ll buy their products, or that companies even on the same page as young people. This became more apparent to me as my conversation with Thalberg went on.


I told her, I thought Taco Bell’s social media brand was interesting it was “self-aware.” There was a big pause.

“What do you mean by self-aware?” she asked me.

I thought about it. “Like hmmm.. like a stoner at midnight vibe,” I said.

Quicker than you can tweet a video of a unicorn eating a taco, she replied. “I really don’t think that’s our vibe,” she said. “I think that implies something the stereotype of Taco Bell but not at all who we are. I think what makes us unique is that there’s an authenticity to who we are that makes us feel like a likeable friend.”

She acknowledged it sounded like your typical brand response. It did. And in my opinion, that was too bad.  I wondered why they didn’t just embrace the stoner vibe — maybe that would give them the kind of authenticity that in my opinion would appeal to the elusive teen demographic.

But it was clear to me and Sonari that fast food brands don’t always get what it’s like to be a teenager. And even if they do someday — by the time you’ve managed to impress a teenager, they’ve become adults and you have to move on to the next group of kids…and the next media revolution.



This story is part of a three-part series Fast Food Scramble. Join our $5 Challenge! Youth Radio is making a map of meals across the country for 5 bucks or less that we’ll publish on Here’s how to submit.

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