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Dec 7
Taco Bell, E. Coli & The Hard-Core Consumer
If you are a Taco Bell customer, it’s likely that you have been avoiding the restaurants over the past few days. The fast food chain has been linked to an outbreak of e. coli bacteria that has sickened dozens in New York and New Jersey (see graphic to the right for more information).  Yesterday, the company announced that the “green onions” or scallions it uses in its products appears the source of the bacteria.    

Hmm . . . it looks like we’ve been here before.  This is the third major food-borne bacterial outbreak to occur in as many months. According to the New York Times, “the number of outbreaks from contaminated produce has far surpassed those from beef and poultry and has drawn nearly even with those linked to seafood, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group.” How Will This Impact Taco Bell’s Brand?

David Allen Ibsen who writes the popular marketing blog “5 Blogs Before Lunch,” had this to say about the e. coli outbreak: “Taco Bell is heading for a brand crisis amid episodes of food poisoning at some of its restaurants. As Taco Bell announced it has removed green onions from its restaurants, investors sold shares in the fast food restaurant with, as Businessweek put it, ‘their eyes on recent worrisome developments.’”

Ibsen suggests that Taco Bell will have to do some work to protect its brand. Its “best strategy,” he suggests, “may be to go into marketing-hiding for a little bit (after they announce a clean bill of health), then slowly woo customers back via promotion after some time (and the memory of the outbreak) has passed.”

Hard-Core Customers Don’t Care About Outbreak  

Although people seem to be avoiding Taco Bell, a story published in this week’s New York Times reminds us that fans of a product, or company will stick with it no matter what.  “No matter the risks, hard-core customers — in a hurry or simply hungry for Taco Bell’s nominally Tex-Mex cuisine — returned to the restaurant today, though some locations remained eerily empty.”  

Clearly, Taco Bell will have to take steps to shore up public and investor confidence in the safety of its products.  However, as the Times’ story indicates, some people love what Taco Bell has to offer.  Given the growing popularity of social media marketing, I wonder if the chain will tap into its customer base to help bolster its reputation and draw people back into its restaurants.  Only time will tell.  

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