In the last six months, Taco Bell's spots have mostly been soundtracked by up-and-coming acts more likely to appear in Pitchfork reviews or buzz-building Spotify playlists than in major ad campaigns.
Since the brand tapped Turnstile for an autumn ad around its popular Nacho Fries, Taco Bell's Feed the Beat program, executed in partnership with entertainment marketing agency The Syndicate, has accelerated. After years in the underground hardcore-punk scene, the Baltimore band has rapidly glowed up, garnering Grammy nominations and a spot on Blink-182's arena tour. But their inclusion in a Taco Bell spot was still a surprise, underscoring how Feed The Beat is bringing the brand closer to emerging acts, not just ones with household names.
"When that commercial hit, a lot of things changed," said Jon Landman, CEO of The Syndicate. "The conversation from a lot of the punk and hardcore community was like, 'This is actually really cool.' That's part of the culture that's changed towards looking at how artists get bigger and make money compared to what it was 10 or 15 years ago."
On the road
Turnstile — along with other spot soundtrackers including pop-punk revivalists Meet Me @ The Altar and boundary pushers Bludnymph, Priya Ragu and whiterosemoxie — are part of Feed The Beat, a long-running Taco Bell program that supports touring musicians for whom the brand is the rare chain that is open late after gigs, meets most dietary restrictions and preferences and promises affordable, craveable food.
Along with an evolution on what musicians and fans consider “selling out” versus “buying in,” Feed The Beat — a program that the brand doesn't promote extensively — has benefited from word-of-mouth in the music industry that has allowed it to build equity and credibility with a new generation of bands.
“Taco Bell is an institution in the touring world, it’s what literally every band finds themselves eating, probably more often than they would like to admit," said Ian Shelton, whose band Militarie Gun is featured in one of the brand's latest spots, in a statement. "Ever since I was a kid and heard of them giving food to touring bands, I imagined getting free Taco Bell. Can’t believe it’s finally happened.”
Militarie Gun, set to release a debut album on June 23, is not yet at the level of Turnstile, let alone Taco Bell brand ambassadors Doja Cat and Lil Nas X. But that authentic connection between brand and band is what drives Feed The Beat, and remains a guiding principle for other marketers looking to engage with consumers around music and culture.
"The whole goal was to support these artists that were out there trying to live their dreams — people that were trying to be in a position where they could tour and play music as a living," said Graham Rothenberg, president and general manager of The Syndicate. "Taco Bell was truly the fuel that was providing them sustenance while they were on the road."
Feed The Beat grew out of The Syndicate's work managing artists and working with brands like Taco Bell, and since its launch in 2006, the program has supported about 2,000 artists. The program's title is literal, and started with Taco Bell providing bands with no-strings-attached $500 gift cards.
"We view these artists being part of Feed The Beat as much more of a handshake and a high five than an endorsement deal or sponsorship," said Landman. "For a lot of artists, we're their first corporate relationship, and everything is opt-in… the relationship is really on their terms."
From there, the program has evolved to include participating musicians' songs in TV and digital advertising created by Taco Bell's creative agency, Deutsch LA. Sync deals that pay artists and other rights holders for song usage have become a source of revenue or bands feeling the crunch from diminished streaming payouts and increased tour costs.
"While there's a transaction involved, these relationships aren't transactional. We're proud that we're able to provide more than just free Taco Bell food by giving these bands a bigger platform and a revenue stream when we feature them in our spots to ensure they're able to maintain being musicians full time," said Tim Bergevin, Taco Bell’s vice president of influencer and community marketing, in a statement.
The strategy behind Feed The Beat is in line with Taco Bell's other musically informed efforts. After a five-year break, the brand returned to the Super Bowl in 2022 with help from Doja Cat. The pop star and brand super-fan starred in a madcap spot that featured her reworked version of Hole's 1998 hit "Celebrity Skin" as the brand fused contemporary culture with ‘90s nostalgia.
The Taco Bell-Doja Cat connection represents the pinnacle of what this type of relationship can do for a brand. The singer-rapper was in conversation with Taco Bell when it took its popular Mexican Pizza item off the menu, causing a social media controversy that she helped stoke.
From there, Taco Bell, The Syndicate, the artist's management and label and Doja Cat herself collaborated on a long-term play that included not just the Super Bowl spot, but a TikTok spoof and a musical co-starring Dolly Parton. Less than two weeks after its return, Taco Bell was running out of ingredients for the Mexican Pizza — a logistical nightmare, but perhaps a welcomed problem.
"It wouldn't have come back and been such a success if the artist wasn't a massive fan — we couldn't have gone and rented someone's equity [otherwise]," Landman said. "The brand couldn't keep up with the demand of Mexican Pizza, and that was truly incredible.