I’ve been thinking a lot about an article about Taco Bell’s research and development kitchen. Hat tip to Antonia Hitchens for such a heavily researched piece. The Dramaturge interprets literature and plays to take to the masses, so must Taco Bell’s R&D staff interpret the zeitgeist and convert it into food products. What’s interesting to me is that the work that the test kitchen staff are engaging in is a confluence of extreme creativity, hard-nosed business and user-centred design. Creativity seems important - mad ideas are encouraged and welcomed - but every ingredient’s cost will be quantified, every manufacturing step understood and every cent counted before a creative idea will be seen by the masses. And all of this is to make the business money, but the money can only come from successfully sparking something from their customers, which in our modern, dopamine fuelled world, requires novelty. I think there’s a lot to take away from this article when it comes to product design in the digital world, and how there is a practised science to this creativity.
A phrase stood out to me - “build content for cultural rebels”. To have a following, in whatever sense and whatever that means to a brand, is an honour. But to be human is to appreciate something for your own reasons, not the reasons set out in a boardroom and it isn’t always an easy thing for a brand to be placed in a certain box by their customers. The “cultural rebels” part is vivid - the brand knows that it’s not your mom-and-pop canteen, it’s got a name for being a bit out there… to the point that being a Taco Bell person has connotations. Whilst you might think of a taco as being just some fuel, and Taco Bell could be forgiven for thinking of a taco as just a way to transform some ingredients and labour into hard cash, the mythology that’s formed around Taco Bell is such that they have a following because what they do interests and inspires people. To some folks, being a Taco Bell person is part of their identity. Understanding the product from the gaze of the customer and then using that lens as the way to view all product development isn’t how all companies do it and this is a wonderful example.
Stunt food is described as foodstuffs which provoke. Humans have been doing stunt food forever - it’s just that your first caveperson who threw a sheep on fire and covered the whole thing over with the thought that leaving the heat and removing flame might still cook the meat wasn’t thinking “This is stunt food!” but I bet that their dinner-mates had their minds blown and talked about it when they met every other tribe for the next few months. Samesies with cooking a pig and some apples together for the first time. This goes on - from the excessive dining time of Henry VIII through to croquembouche (towers of profiteroles) being written about in the newspapers of 1800’s France, to today’s Instagram Story hungry dining audience. For a certain subset of products, it’s not enough to have a product that just works, it’s got to force people to ask questions, to question their tastes, to discuss with their people. To provoke.
Taco Bell’s sacrosanct Distinctiveness Rule: “You can change either the taste or the form” of a beloved food item, Creed said. “But you can’t change the taste and the form.”
What are the sacrosanct rules for your business? And have you even considered what it would mean to, in whatever context you work in, make a cheese toastie that didn’t taste of cheese and isn’t in toasted bread? I’ve recently seen a bunch of social media posts from clothing brand Boden where no matter what the brand does to promote its new ranges of clothes the comments are all ridiculing them for forgetting that customers that have been shopping there for a long time are typically older and are being shut out by changes to the design of the clothes in the new range… best avoid the comments section unless you want to see a lot of rage about cutaway swimsuits and dresses for the over-50s (from over-50s). You can change the taste and the form but the thing won’t be perceivable as the same and that might lead to alienating your customers.
To release about ten new products a year, Taco Bell’s innovation scientists test roughly seventy; to come up with those seventy, they consider thousands of ideas. Matthews regularly takes groups of employees on food-immersion trips to cities around the world, where they eat for four days. “Then there are text chains, Slack chats, voice memos in the middle of the night about potatoes,” she said.
There’s so much to unpack in this one paragraph! When was the last time you really, truly, immersively, researched “competitors” to your product? In a world where your customer can see images of exciting foodstuffs from anywhere in the world as the next thing the algorithm presents to them, the concept of what’s cool or “in” is global. And, in Taco Bell’s situation - where word of mouth is such a huge part of their advertising - they aren’t just competing with other eateries in their local area for footfall, they are competing with crazy foods all around the world for your attention. And so their development staff are geeks, geeking out on their specialist subject. Mastermind-ready competitors on the specialist subject of ingredients, foods and dining experiences. Is your business an environment - a safe space - for people to get all nerdy on the subject of your business? No matter how many new products you release per year, are you refining down 100x ideas? Are you testing 7x prototypes? And what are you doing to fuel creativity?
The leader of the movement to bring back the Beefy Crunch Burrito texts Prince regularly.
Following on from at-night, off-the-clock, possibly-on-personal-devices conversations about potatoes, being in direct conversation with passionate (possibly over-attached) customers is something most businesses aren’t doing, let alone doing so in a constructive way. Knowing your audience is important; having a direct line to the audience members who would be quickest to turn on you (and have the loudest voice) is a delicate situation to be in.
Part of Ciresi’s broader mission, as an employee of a trade organization called Dairy Management Inc., is conceptualizing how to get more dairy on the Taco Bell menu—“taking dairy from a garnish to the hero,” as he put it. The latest dairy-heavy hit is the Baja Blast Colada Freeze (two hundred and fifty calories), made with heavy cream. (D.M.I. was also behind Pizza Hut’s cheese-stuffed crust.)
Iteration is very important in any product’s development - it sounds like Taco Bell encourages and challenges its developers to keep stewing on ideas, expecting that either their own idea will evolve until it’s feasible, or the tools, techniques, market, consumer demand or ingredients will change to make something possible enough to bring forth to the test phase. But what about working with outsider influences inside your organisation? We’re not talking about industrial espionage (although clearly, that’s a factor some businesses are contending with). How does your business understand, discuss and quantify the role of outside factors? If a customer is on a £10 per month phone contract with 10GB of data it’s in the carrier’s best interest for the user to use as much data per month as possible, so that they are forced to move to the next, more expensive level of data allowance. From the customer’s point of view, the converse is true - costs rising is never good and the parallel factors of more data flowing to/from their device decrease its speed, decrease battery life, etc. A Super Nintendo game cartridge held up to 4MB and contained some truly amazing games yet the code has bloated vastly to the point that the Microsoft To Do list tracker on Android comes in at just under 20MB download… Candy Crush Saga is a 90MB download… and that doesn’t include data transferred whilst apps are in use. I’m not just using phone carriers and game/app developers as an example but it’s interesting to think of what powers might be working inside your organisation to make changes that may or may not be in the best interest of your users. Fitting 12.5% of the recommended daily calorie intake into a single drink sounds like it’s tasty, sure, and also maybe a little more healthy for D.M.I. than the waistline of diners. What’s the equivalent for you?
A forty-thousand-dollar steel device that mimics a chewing mouth tests such factors as the perfect breaking point of a chip. (People apparently like a chip that snaps with about four pounds of pressure per square inch.)
Taco Bell scientists, who consider a food’s rheological properties, which include bounce, density, crunchiness, gumminess, springback, juiciness, and spreadability.
These quotes reek of both passionate scientific testing at its best AND of silliness to the extreme. What it is is a financial investment into an area of the business that will be recuperated many times over. When you serve forty-two million people a week (and go through eight billion sauce packets a year - more than the number of people on earth) the investment in the tiny details is important. Knowing which data to pay attention to to make decisions is a skill. The section about user testing sessions - where taste testers and their reactions are a critical first stage of the feedback loop - noted the importance of the user tester themself in the process; how they interrogate their test subjects is an art form.
Bell bought tortillas from a nearby factory and fiddled around with different sauces, spices, and cooking techniques. He assumed that the idea was a lost cause when his first customer, a businessman in a pinstripe suit, dripped grease down his sleeve and onto his tie. Bell showed people how to tilt their heads in order to eat a taco. “We changed the eating habits of an entire nation,” he wrote.
Whilst there are countless examples of the market needing to be told how to do a thing before the thing can be enjoyed, this one amuses me as I think it puts an arrogant spin on something that people have worked out themselves. Perhaps it’s mostly there to set the foundation of the mythology about the success of the company. But it is an important point - certain expectations that you may have about your users will need to be explained to them, maybe shown to them, perhaps even drip fed (ahem!) to them. Just because you know how to eat a taco does not mean that everyone will.
In the article, there’s some cultural context around the shift from America being founded with an attitude to food of eating functionally to work hard, which has changed to a ‘food is for pleasure’ outlook. This idea of portability of food - and specifically in the US the necessity of being able to drive and eat at the same time - also ties into a business understanding of the cultural context in which any product will be experienced. How many parking apps work inside a multi-storey car park signal black hole? For every happy Citymapper user (which designs for the signal blackspots of the Tube) there will be countless customers who lost out on their Clubcard points because there’s no signal to get the Tesco app to load in-store.
The company had to come up with “a bespoke means to season taco shells,” […] An early try involved using a Home Depot paint-spray gun to apply the nacho-cheese powder to the shells.
The context of a customer in their car (or, more broadly, a customer wanting to avoid the faux-pas of turning up anywhere with a liberal covering of Dorito dust) led to almost anarchic engineering solutions. To me the beauty here is that what needs to work to bootstrap on a small scale for a trial in a test kitchen doesn’t need to work out of the real world - it’s enough for a prototype to be a proof of concept, to show senior staff/investors/the world that you can do it.
The taco has what industry scientists call a “long hang time” flavoring system, meaning that the lingering smell stimulates food memories and cravings; meanwhile, the multifaceted flavors are strong enough to trip “sensory-specific satiety,” a neural signal that makes you think you’re full.
When was the last time you saw a product or app that both hung around in your brain and also designed to make you know when you’ve had enough of it? Certainly not any social media apps!
The new taco was tested out at a few of the chain’s locations. “People were driving three hundred miles to get the D.L.T. [Doritos Locos Taco],” Matthews said. “One guy drove across the country.” The product was officially launched in 2012, and a hundred million Doritos Locos Tacos were sold in the first ten weeks. A 2013 marketing case study singles out Taco Bell’s plan to “create a subculture of Doritos Locos Tacos fanatics.”
“There was a person there with their hair dyed Baja Blast blue. It took them months to get the right color. They’re fanatics. But hate and love are better than indifference.”
Lots of products/websites/apps have their fanatics. Even government websites have their fanatics (if you don’t agree, try comparing the weekend “camps”, cliques of people who covet a certain set of stickers on their MacBook laptops just because they were lucky enough to have been born at a particular time in a particular country and have had a particular type of education, conference speaker circuit etc that exist around some UK government websites and the guy who drove 300 miles for a taco).
In the futuristic 1993 movie “Demolition Man,” Taco Bell is, in 2032, the only fast-food chain left after a series of corporate battles called the Franchise Wars. The movie was prescient. The years since then have given us Burger King’s Bacon Sundae, Pizza Hut’s hot-dog-stuffed crust, Cinnabon’s Pizzabon, and KFC’s fried-chicken-flavored nail polish (“finger-lickin’ good”). Taco Bell remains determined to out-stunt them all.
I have a feeling that Demolition Man may not have aged well but I don’t want to spoil memories of it so I won’t rewatch. That aside, this idea of any industry getting locked into a battle over their customer’s eyeballs/stomachs/minds is generally a good one - some healthy competition. (Although I can’t imagine a bacon sundae to be all that healthy!) When was the last time a critic (or even customer!) suggested the member of staff responsible for one of your products worthy of a Noble Prize? And whether or not a sandwich wrapping technique should be patentable, many businesses forget that such seemingly trivial things are patentable. And aside from patents, there’s value in battling by diversifying - Taco Bell licenced cantinas, a wedding venue and a hotel all show ways of bringing in more money, satisfying fans and offering something a bit different. (Definitely not for everyone - but it doesn’t need to be).
Anyway - those were some of my random thoughts. Lots of food for thought in the article.