The Women Behind Taco Bell’s 'Bro' Image
It's not as male-oriented as you might think.
When Liz Williams applied for a high-powered job at Taco Bell's Irvine, California headquarters, she was six-months pregnant—so close to bringing her second child into the world she nearly talked herself out of the position. On a recent call with Food & Wine, The now-CFO of the Mexican-inspired fast-food brand laughs recalling that moment. Not only did she take the job, but she found a welcoming environment that empowers women, especially its female employees dedicated to their families.
"I remember I said to Melissa Lora [president of Taco Bell International], 'are you sure you want me to come out and do this?'" Williams retells. "And she said, 'don't make a decision not to take this job because of some silly thing like having a baby."
The fact that Taco Bell would be so understanding of her pregnancy wasn't a shock to Williams. She'd already worked in the brand's parent company, YUM!, and knew the drill. She also wasn't surprised to join an executive team composed of 50 percent women, in a building that employees a 50-percent female staff. Yet those experiences and stats might come as a surprise to consumers when they think about a brand that seems to have a definite “bro” bent.
While Taco Bell is eaten by men and women, the brand’s food and advertising both have a certain male appeal. Take its Quesalupa TV commercial, which aired for the first time during the 2016 Super Bowl. The cheese-in-shell treat is promised to be big, like, “bigger than the Internet” big. And it runs through a series of shots of be male-focused references: drones, James Harden’s beard and hover boards. And who can forget the classic ‘90s Chihuahua campaign that featured an ad with a taco hotline operated by a breathy, sexy woman's voice.
But this brand is run equally by men and women. And they're working to appeal to everyone who wants to hold on to a little bit of youth and a lot of fun, Williams says.
Taco Bell's executive team includes Williams, Lora, CMO Marisa Thalberg; chief food innovation officer Liz Matthews and a handful of other men and women leading the brand to a broader market.
Lora joined the Taco Bell team 30 years ago, working her way up to CFO and now, to her current role. "When I joined Taco Bell and became the CFO, I was really the only woman on the executive team," she says. "And it's so fantastic now to have so many talented women on team with us." Lora goes on “I can see where it is considered a 'bro' brand—but it's really just an innovative, youthful, irreverent brand, which, as you know, women can be too."
The very existence of Lora's role as president of Taco Bell International is an example of that innovation. In 2013, when she accepted the position, it was brand new. In fact, she suggested it needed to exist in the first place. "We are really good about moving people around," she explains. "I was also able to create some of the jobs I had because there was a need in the business. I would pitch whomever was in that function and say, 'I think there's a need for a role like this—what do you think?' If it was a need, they would support it and the next thing I knew I was off doing that."
Thalberg came to Taco Bell after years working with luxury beauty brands. When a headhunter approached her, she questioned whether to tell her friends she was considering the move. "I did wonder what my female friends were going to think, she admits. But as she opened up, something surprising happened. "I found all these women sort of coming out of the closet to me and being like, 'oh my god, Taco Bell is my favorite, Taco Bell is my guilty pleasure,' and there was a sort of amazing glint in their eyes."
Under Thalberg, who joined the company in 2015, Taco Bell has further embraced social media, and come up with quirky, inclusive campaigns, such as celebrating Taco Bell-loving couples with all-expenses paid Taco Bell-themed weddings.
Thalberg often works closely with Matthews, who describes their relationship as a little like "Lucy and Ethel," as they come up with new menu items.
One of those items was the Naked Chicken Chalupa, which debuted in January. The chicken-shelled taco—Matthews' creation—was so wildly popular that she ran to Greg Creed, YUM! CEO, and said, "maybe my career has peaked! What am I going to do?" she recalls. "But what is more exciting is realizing there are thousands of possibilities that lie ahead of you, and it only takes a second for you to realize them."
The next up, the women all seem to agree, will be on convenience. As Williams explains, often the only negative feedback they get from customers is that the closest Taco Bell isn't close enough to them. Taco Bell, which has 5,000 restaurants, is committed to growing to 9,000 locations by 2020.
Convenience is also important within Taco Bell, which brings us back to Williams' story. She wasn't surprised to hear Lora encourage her to take on a new job just as she came to the end of her pregnancy, because Taco Bell supports all its employees, men and women, in having that elusive work-life balance. But admittedly, that often is more important—and more valuable—to female employees with families.
"The first thing you see at the [headquarters] here is a childcare center," Thalberg says. "That right away sets a tone—when you can be in a meeting on the first floor and hear the nursery kids outside in the playground, or when you see people whom you generally only see as colleagues with a tiny little hand in theirs as they walk to their cars. Even if you don't have children in that childcare center, it's s a visible reminder of work and life together and that we're whole people and we all have families."
That's the kind of thing, Williams says, that makes it so easy to work at this not-so-bro brand after all.