Last year, in a post entitled "Reputation Management In The Digital Age," I presented some examples on how a slow response to a crisis can do serious damage to a company's brand and reputation. For much of the past week I thought history was repeating itself as I observed Taco Bell's evolving response to the "Where's the Beef" lawsuit. It took multiple attempts, but Taco Bell eventually presented a strong and effective response to a lawsuit's allegations that there's very little beef in the fast food chain's tacos, and therefore it should be prohibited from advertising the tacos as containing "seasoned ground beef or seasoned beef."
The class action lawsuit was filed January 19, 2011 in federal court in California by Montgomery, Alabama attorney W. Daniel "Dee" Miles. The lead plaintiff is Amanda Obney of California. The suit alleges that the meat mixture in Taco Bell's burritos and tacos contain binders and extenders and does not meet requirements set by the USDA to be labeled beef. Specifically, the suit alleges that the taco filling is made of components such as water, isolated oat product, wheat oats, soy lecithin, maltodextrin, anti-dusting agent, autolyzed yeast extract, modified corn starch, sodium phosphate, as well as some beef and seasonings. When contacted for a comment on the lawsuit, attorney Miles said that just 35 percent of the taco filling was a solid, and just 15 percent overall was protein. "You can't call it beef by definition," Miles said. "It's junk. I wouldn't eat it."
When Taco Bell was asked for its comment on Monday, January 24, I do not think that it handled it well. It told Alabama television station, WSFA, in a prepared statement that: "Taco Bell prides itself on serving high quality Mexican inspired food with great value. We're happy that the millions of customers we serve every week agree. We deny our advertising is misleading in any way and we intend to vigorously defend the suit."
In my opinion, the statement fails because while Taco Bell is "vigorously defend[ing] the suit," its customers are asking "What's in the tacos?"
I suspect that Taco Bell realized the weakness of its initial response and the danger to its brand presented by the lawsuit and the attendant publicity, because the next day,Tuesday, January 25, it tried again. The following statement from Taco Bell's president, Greg Creed, appeared on Taco Bell's website and was released to the media:
"At Taco, Bell, we buy our beef from the same trusted brands you find in the supermarket, like Tyson Foods. We start with 100 percent USDA-inspected beef. Then we simmer it in our proprietary blend of seasonings and spices to give our seasoned beef its signature Taco Bell taste and texture. We are proud of the quality of our beef and identify all the seasoning and spice ingredients on our website. Unfortunately the lawyers in this case elected to sue first and ask questions later -- and got their "facts" absolutely wrong. We plan to take legal action for the false statements being made about our food."
Although this statement began to address the primary issue of "What's in the tacos?" it erred in mentioning the lawsuit and discussing Taco Bell's contemplated legal response. When the media reported the statement, the lead was not Creed's defense of the product, but that Taco Bell was going to sue. For example, Reuters lead was "Taco Bell Plans Countersuit Over Ground Beef" and Creed's statement that Taco Bell uses "100 percent USDA-inspected beef" did not appear until the fifth paragraph of the story. Another problem with the statement was the second sentence: "We start with 100 percent USDA-inspected beef." The issue isn't what Taco Bell "starts" with, since the lawsuit acknowledges there is meat in the taco, just not enough to be labeled "beef." The issue is what is in the "end" product the consumer purchases and eats.
On Wednesday, January 26, Taco Bell put another statement on its website and released it to the media, "Statement Regarding Class Action Lawsuit." This is a much stronger and detailed statement that finally tells the consumer everything that is in the taco, with the approximate percentage of each ingredient. However at this point, three days into the crisis, Taco Bell was probably advised that releasing statements is not sufficient to address the issue or the potential damage to its brand. Therefore, this statement was followed-up on Thursday, January 27, with a YouTube video entitled, "Of Course We Use Real Beef!" and featuring Taco Bell president Creed. Although the content is similar to the January 26th statement, Creed makes no reference to the lawsuit or any Taco Bell legal action. Instead he addresses the issue head-on in a very convincing manner:
In addition, today, Taco Bell launched an advertising campaign about the taco filling, placing full-page print ads in the New York Times, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal. The print ads say, in huge letters, "Thank you for suing us. Here's the truth about our seasoned beef." Here's a link to the ad. Although I think "Thank you for suing us" is inappropriate, the ad, in conjunction with the YouTube video, is a very strong defense that addresses the real issue. Time well tell whether Taco Bell's evolving response has been successful in protecting its brand and reputation.