As other marketing trends of the digital era fade from view, the experiential space has proved it has surprising staying power, but also an increasingly high threshold for standing out. Consumers can only attend so many "Gram-worthy" pop-ups before the experiences start to bleed into each other.
Taco Bell, perhaps picking up on consumer fatigue, evolved the idea of the brand experience to new heights this year, refurbishing an entire hotel into a mecca for its biggest enthusiasts. Reservations at the Palm Springs, California, destination dubbed "The Bell: A Taco Bell Hotel & Resort" sold out in under two minutes of going live in June, with reservations starting at $169 per night and going up to $299 per night for pool-view suites.
It's clear what served as a draw for ardent followers of the Doritos Locos Taco purveyor: Open from Aug. 8-12, The Bell included decked-out bedrooms, a pool with sauce packet floaties, a hair and nail salon offering styles inspired by the brand, a gift shop selling exclusive Taco Bell merchandise and myriad branded activities, from yoga to live concerts. Special dishes from the Yum Brands chain's Test Kitchen, such as Taco Bell spins on the club sandwich and millennial favorite avocado toast, were also served to attendees.
However, high-concept activations don't work without smart, seamless execution. On that front, Taco Bell pulled out all of the stops, working with partners United Entertainment Group and Edelman for nearly two years on developing The Bell, a space that layered substance on top of all of the Instagram-ready style, according to Ad Age.
The planning paid off. Across four days, 400 hundred people from 21 states stayed at the hotel, according to company figures shared with Marketing Dive, including honeymooners, influencers and a couple who canceled an anniversary trip to Prague after securing a reservation. Online, the campaign generated 4.4 billion impressions and more than 5,000 articles from news outlets, Jennifer Arnoldt, senior director of retail management at Taco Bell, said at Adweek's Brandweek event in November.
"The Taco Bell Hotel was the first of its kind and has gone down in history as the most epic brand experience ever," a Taco Bell representative boasted in emailed comments to Marketing Dive.
Under one roof
It's easy to see other marketers viewing the success of The Bell as enviable and replicable. The reality is that it’s something few brands could pull off, even with significant groundwork.
Taco Bell did not arrive at the hotel makeover concept out of the blue. For years, it has pushed boundaries in figuring how far consumers will go to express their brand love. Early inklings of something like The Bell can be seen in the chain's launch of premium Cantina locations, where visitors can get married. Plenty of couples have, shelling out $600 to do so.
But Taco Bell has also tested the waters in other areas that converge around The Bell. There are the rare peeks inside the secretive Test Kitchen, which only a few consumers have had the chance to visit. The company previously worked with Airbnb on overnight stays at its restaurant locations as part of a new menu item promotion. Branded apparel with retail partners like Forever 21 has been another ploy that's appeared to win over taco-loving millennials.
With each of these experiments, Taco Bell has added another tactic to its marketing playbook and helped drive a business that handily bested analyst expectations with same-store sales growth of 7% in Q2. The Bell ties together those tactics together under one roof and then some, going beyond similar but smaller and more bare-bones stunts that have shown brands remain eager to jump on the experiential travel trend.
The concept was also a fitting swan song for Marisa Thalberg's time at Taco Bell. The global brand chief helped architect many of the brand's most successful campaigns over the past four years, including The Bell. Thalberg, who announced her plans for resignation in August, perhaps summarized the experience best around its launch.
"The Bell stands to be the biggest expression of the Taco Bell lifestyle to date," she said.