Breakfast is a beast, says Emili Matsumura, a senior manager for Taco Bell Brand Marketing in California. She knows it well: The 33-year-old, who has an MBA from UCLA and nearly a decade of experience in marketing and advertising, is on a mission to launch the next hit order on the national morning menu.
But finding it is no simple task.
Emili can fire off countless ideas that didn't make the cut. The Chonut, a cross between a churro and a donut, and the Strawberry Popanada, an empanada-shaped pastry stuffed with strawberry filling, are just two of thousands of ideas that, well, RIP.
Most ideas die because they don't measure up against the three golden qualities of a good morning meal: portable (because drive through), made with traditional breakfast ingredients (eggs, sausage, cheese, etc., because research says no one's looking to gamble with new flavors in the morning), and possessing that Mexican-inspired twist that sets Taco Bell apart from competitors (think Crunchwrap).
The twist is the most challenging to get right—and arguably the most important.
“There has to be a reason for people to come to Taco Bell versus going somewhere else," says Emili. “Especially because we're new to the game. We're the underdog, and we have to give them a reason to turn left instead of turning right in the morning."
More Than Ads
A lot of people hear "brand marketing" and think it means partnering with outside agencies to market existing products, but it's way more than that.
“Basically, we manage the innovation process," Emili explains. “From generating the idea for a new product all the way through testing it and getting consumer feedback, to launching nationally and actually working on the advertising piece of it."
That “vertical integration"—the ability to influence development from idea to market—is rare, and what attracted Emili to the job.
For a few years after college, Emili worked at an ad agency in strategic planning. She poured over data and market insights to steer brands' advertising campaigns for max resonance with consumers. But ultimately she felt like she was operating in a vacuum.
“I had a retail client, and I would go shop there to see the clothes and buy a couple things," says Emili. “I felt like, 'OK, these clothes are cute, but the in-store experience is horrendous.' Being on the advertising side, I could change perceptions of what people think about the clothes, and really market the heck out of them, but even if I were to get a consumer to go to the store, I had no control over the in-store experience."
Emili decided to go back to school to get her MBA with the goal of working on the client side, or in-house at a brand, so she could affect everything from start to finish, including the creation of the product.
What she didn't realize was all the fun she'd have dreaming up new ideas.
As you can imagine, the search for the next blockbuster breakfast entails a lot of brainstorming. The Chonut, for one, was born during a thought-starter meeting (we demanded an explanation of where it came from). Every week, one person is charged with bringing something to get ideas flowing.
For a recent meeting, Emili brought a tool that makes waffle grooves. (It's not a waffle maker— it actually goes in the deep fryer—but it makes whatever you put in it look like a waffle.) In no time there were donuts in the fryer. Hash browns. French toast. Mac and cheese (“that one is totally not relevant but it was fun"). A muffin. You get the idea.
Coming up with new ideas also means getting out of the office as much as possible. Emili and her team make a point of going on “inspiration tours" to try new foods.
“We have 7,000 stores, so to bring something to scale takes time, but if you want to be at the forefront of new trends and ideas, you need to be out there pretty early. So just going out and looking for inspiration outside of fast food is our way of getting new ideas. We never take anything we see out there as it stands, but we always think: What's the one bit we can take from this that's cool and unique and apply it to us."
The Brand Marketing team has also been known to raid grocery stores. They'll fan out in teams to search nearby stores for brands and grocery items that might make a good partner in-store. For example, Taco Bell has a particularly scrumptious partnership with Cinnabon to sell Cinnabon Delights in the morning.
And sometimes ideas come from far away. Emili's background is Japanese; she goes to Japan once a year with her family. And even though Taco Bell's Mexican slant is miles from Japanese food, Emili says she makes a point of scanning Japan's vibrant food culture for new ideas when she's there.
“Internationally, brands take a lot more risks," she says. “I look at Japan as one of those places where they do things differently, and you can take nuggets of inspiration."
No matter where the idea comes from, one thing is for sure. Emili and her team are hyper vigilant about running infant product names through Urban Dictionary before getting too comfortable with them.
Chonut turned up clean, but others... not so much.