One stolen base, one free egg-sausage-quesadilla-type thing for “all of America.” That was the World Series publicity play cooked up by Taco Bell, a bold strategy that even a Mets fan could cheer for.
Standing for the entirety of the championship, it seemed like a reckless gambit, particularly when one of the teams, the Kansas City Royals, had one of the best stolen-base records in baseball. Sure enough, Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain obliged greasy-breakfast fans just six innings into Game 1. Social networks exploded with talk of gratis Crunchwraps, and the Fox television commentators yucked it up as well. Taco Bell owner Yum! Brands queued up a series of TV commercials to crow about the play for the rest of the series.
Tomorrow morning, the masses gather for their handout.
These sorts of freebies are fairly common, and they’re growing in popularity as big consumer brands try to stay in front of commercial-skipping fans. Major League Baseball calls them “trigger promotions.” In addition to the big chunk of marketing money, the league likes such arrangements because they tend to draw in casual fans and even those who don’t care much for baseball.
“Three or four years back, it was all about the ad — what kind of ad will people talk about for three days?” said Noah Garden, MLB's executive vice president of business. “Now you’ve started to hear words like ‘activation’ more.”
The activation, in this case, worked like a charm. The only way Taco Bell could have been a bigger part of the game is if it had literally put a Crunchwrap on second base (there’s always next year). Taco Bell said the promotion alone garnered 25,000 mentions on social media in the 24 hours after the stolen base. That's in addition to its regular chatter of 32,000 mentions in an average day.
Usually giveaways come with a load of caveats. The freebie is only good in a certain region or there’s a cap on how many products are handed out. This time, however, the restrictions are few. "You generally don't see someone willing to invest in something so large," MLB's Garden said.
By “America,” Yum meant the U.S. (sorry, Canadians). The offer only stands at participating stores between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. Also, managers can deny any person “they reasonably believe” has already grabbed a free Crunchwrap.
Beyond that, Taco Bell didn’t even hedge its bets. According to spokesman Rob Poetsch, it didn’t spring for any kind of prize-indemnity insurance, which protects against unlikely winnings like some shaggy-haired stoner sinking a half-court shot at halftime. “We’re prepared to give out as many as we have to,” Poetsch said. “We truly want everyone to try it.”
So what will all of this cost Yum? The company has an ongoing promotional deal with Major League Baseball. Those typically cost between $10 million and $15 million, according to Jan Katzoff, who negotiates such contracts for GMR Marketing, a Milwaukee-based agency. The World Series giveaway adds millions more to the deal. In other words, it was Super Bowl commercial-level money, perhaps two or three of them.
The additional TV commercials cost about $530,000 apiece, according to Eric Smallwood, managing partner of Apex Marketing Group in Missouri. That's another $2 million or $3 million.
And then there’s the product. Based on Yum’s food and packaging costs this year, Taco Bell spends about 68 cents to make a $2.50 Crunchwrap. And there are about 6,000 Taco Bells in the country, almost all of which are participating. If each restaurant gives out two Crunchwraps per minute tomorrow morning, the company will have kicked out roughly $2 million in free product.
In short, it doesn't take much ballpark math to see Taco Bell’s World Series play stretching beyond $10 million. What’s the return on that kind of greasy spend? Is it really worth three or four Super Bowl ads?
The whole thing was probably more about defense than it was about scoring. As nutritionists say, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. That’s particularly true these days at fast-food chains like Taco Bell. It’s the one meal that so-called fast-casual brands such as Chipotle, Shake Shack, and Dig Inn haven’t started swiping away. What’s more, Taco Bell’s stolen-base blitz came just days after McDonald’s began selling breakfast all day. “We think we’ve got a great offering compared to the tired biscuit sandwiches out there,” Poetsch said.
If the fast-food industry were in fact the baseball playoffs, Taco Bell and McDonald's would be the two wild-card teams — stocked with sluggers past their prime and unlikely to be in the championship.
The morning after the stolen base in Game 1, I walked into one of the few Taco Bell restaurants in Manhattan. A manager told me he expected a line around the block on Nov. 5. However, at the time — 8 o’clock in the morning after an apparent marketing home run — the place was empty. Nobody was getting breakfast, stolen or otherwise.