True taco savants could only shake their heads Sunday night. After weeks of hype, including breathless news releases, YouTube videos and a preordering campaign — Taco Bell released its top-secret innovation in a Super Bowl commercial that cost it millions. The fast-food chain hyped the creation as bigger than a Mars landing, hoverboards and Tinder.
So what was that amazing innovation? A taco with cheese in the shell, dubbed the quesalupa.
“My initial reaction was that already exists in Mexican culture,” said Gustavo Arellano, author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.” “There is nothing new under the Mexican sun.”
“Personally I think it’s a quesadilla. I didn’t see how it’s much different,” said Russell Walker, a professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg business school who studies innovation.
Arellano says the quesalupa is essentially a taco gobernador, a cheesy taco generally served with fish.
On a variety of levels there’s nothing innovative about the new taco. Taco Bell supplier Tyson can’t even make the shells automatically. Employees must stuff the shells with pepperjack cheese by hand.
If you’re chuckling at the absurdity of Taco Bell hyping an ordinary offering, you’re missing the larger point. This stuffed-crust-pizza rendition of a taco is the latest reminder of Taco Bell’s marketing prowess, which helps the company put fresh spins on incremental changes to its food. Every marketing and taco expert contacted for this article was confident the taco would sell well.
“They’re the Johnny Appleseeds that wet Americans’ appetites for Mexican food,” Arellano said of Taco Bell.
Taco Bell argues that the innovation behind the quesalupa was taking the best of the quesadilla and the chalupa and combining them.
“It’s a twist on something familiar,” said chief product marketing officer Stephanie Perdue. “A lot of people do things on the inside of the taco, but they don’t think about the outside of the taco.”
Perdue said the quesalupa was inspired by a visit to a pupuseria four years ago. Taco Bell’s team comes up with 300 to 400 ideas a year and tests 30 of them in its stores.
That’s led to hits such as the Doritos Locos taco, which sold 100 million in the first 10 weeks. AdAge named Taco Bell its marketer of the year in 2013.
“The key challenge for a fast food company is to continuously differentiate themselves from the crowd, and over the years Taco Bell has done a pretty good job of that,” said University of Southern California marketing professor Ira Kalb.
They were one of the first fast-food chains to offer a low-priced value menu. And Taco Bell wisely targets the young, who are susceptible to advertising, rather than trying to appeal to everyone, marketing experts said.
“Their target audience is narrower than Burger King or McDonalds. In today’s market you have to do that,” said Russell Winer, a marketing professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “Tastes are varied across market segments, you have to think about reaching a narrow audience that will be turned on to your brand.”
With a young audience, Taco Bell doesn’t have to concern itself as much with healthy offerings. Two quesalupas include the recommended daily allotment of saturated fat.
Kelley Coffeen, the author of “300 Best Taco Recipes,” tried two quesalupas Monday morning and enjoyed them. Her book doesn’t include any recipes that require stuffing cheese in the shell. To her, the shell itself is an innovation.
“But overall it was a pretty safe adventure on their part,” said Coffeen of the taco. If Taco Bell really wanted to make a change, she said, it could swap the iceberg lettuce with sliced bell peppers, or use a different type of cheese, such as cotija.
While many fans of authentic Mexican cuisine are less forgiving of Taco Bell than Coffeen, the food does have one other value. According to Arellano, Taco Bell is a gateway to more authentic cuisine.
“Their job is to basically get that next generation of eaters,” said Arellano, who isn’t a fan of Taco Bell’s food. “The Doritos Locos eaters of today will turn into the mole poblano eaters of tomorrow.”