The Magic of the Doritos Locos Taco
If you want to understand nearly everything that’s both great and awful about modern American capitalism, take a close look at Austin Carr’s story about the creation of Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco—yes, that—in the May 1 edition of Fast Company.
Why great? Because Taco Bell clearly tapped into a deep-burning American desire for the product: The company has sold more than 450 million “units” of the taco since it debuted last year. Read the article, though, and you’ll see that success was not pre-ordained: It required innovation and retooling and problem-solving—believe it or not, it takes quite a bit of good, old-fashioned ingenuity to bring a product like this to market.
Why awful? Because, um, it’s the Doritos Locos Taco. It’s kind of an abomination, no? Karl Marx reputedly said that “the last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.” He was probably wrong about that, but when you think about all the resources and brainpower that went into the taco’s creation and marketing—and, well, you kind of get why he might say something like that.
The combination of business brainpower and ridiculous product makes the story of the Doritos Locos Taco seem almost like satire, something the Onion would invent if it had a business page. But it’s real, and it’s worth your consideration. Here are the five best quotes from Carr’s story:
Taco Bell CEO Greg Creed discusses his company’s core product: “The crunchy taco: It was yellow and made of corn. We sold a couple billion of them, but there had been no innovation.” He gave his staff until March 2012–slightly under three years–to pull off a complete rethink of traditional Mexican cuisine.
If you think about it, there’s something absurd about “a complete rethink of traditional Mexican cuisine.” Mexican food (or, perhaps more properly, Tex-Mex) is what it is. So the point of innovation these days isn’t so much about giving consumers what they need—we’re a long way past basic Adam Smith transactions here—and more about creating novelty. You might need food, and thus might sometimes even need Taco Bell. The aim here, though, is to create a shinier toy. Nothing wrong with that, but nothing especially noble about it, either.
The central issue was that Taco Bell’s shells used a different type of corn masa than Doritos chips. But it wasn’t simply a matter of adjusting the recipe. In order to create the DLT, the teams had to consider everything from seasoning mechanics to the taco’s structural integrity throughout 2010 and 2011. “Frito-Lay wanted what’s called a ‘teeth-rattling crunch,’ so they wanted it to snap and crunch more than the current Taco Bell shell snaps and crunches,” Creed says. “So we had to get that formula changed, then we had to find a way to deliver the flavoring, and then the seasoning. I mean, it was actually important that we left the orange dusting on your fingers because otherwise, we’re not delivering the genuine Doritos [experience].”
In fact, the developers went through 40 different recipes for the shell over two years before finally settling on “the” Doritos shell. Coming up with a concept like this might sound easy; in fact, it requires the ability to steer massive corporations in new directions. That’s kind of amazing.
In fact, the companies ended up creating a proprietary seasoner in the process, not least because for workers on the manufacturing line, the plumes of Doritos seasoning would create an almost Nacho Cheese gas chamber. “We realized pretty quickly that we had to seal that all in, because in the facilities, we couldn’t have all that stuff in the air,” Creed says. “It would’ve been too much seasoning and flavor for our workers. We had to enclose it so the seasoning wouldn’t escape. It would’ve been overpowering.”
Even when making food, modern industrial processes aren’t necessarily … healthy.
Soon, hype around the DLT spread like lukewarm baja sauce. Customers began blogging about their experience; a slew of video reviews hit YouTube; and one Taco Bell addict even drove 900 miles from New York to Toledo, OH for an early taste of the DLT. “They were just fanatical, and the results were off the charts,” Stephanie Purdue says. “I’ve never seen so much word of mouth generated for one single product.”
I honestly don’t know how to feel about people who blog their Taco Bell experiences. But they’re clearly important to Taco Bell. Customers aren’t just your customers these days: They’re also your marketers.
To Creed, the partnership between Taco Bell and Frito-Lay is more than a one-off collaboration. Like Android is to Google or iOS is to Apple, Doritos-based flavors represent a whole new framework for Taco Bell to build on. “It’s not just a product; it’s now a platform–Nacho Cheese, Cool Ranch, Flamas,” Creed beams. “We’re going to blow everyone away in the next few years in terms of how big this idea and platform will become.”
Which means this: In three or four years, some executive somewhere will gather his team around his desk and give the following marching orders: “You have three years to completely rethink Doritos-based Mexican cuisine.” Almost certainly, we’ll eat it up.