By examining the evolution of a brand’s logo and other marketing elements, we can gain a unique insight into a company, its strategies, and even the cultural issues to which the company is responding with each change. Therefore, an in-depth examination of popular brands, including a look at how they have remained popular over time, can reveal a microcosm of the larger society. As one of the most prominent and successful fast-food franchises in the United States, Taco Bell is just such a brand, and by looking into the history of the Taco Bell logo, we can gain a unique perspective on the American story over the past half-century.
Taco Bell Brand History
Distinguishing itself from other mainstream fast-food franchises, which typically base their menus on burgers, fries, and milkshakes, Taco Bell serves Tex-Mex-inspired dishes like tacos, burritos, and quesadillas.
Taco Bell, which now serves some 2 billion customers annually at approximately 7,000 fast-food restaurants, was the brainchild of California entrepreneur Glen Bell, who came up with the ideawhile operating a hot dog stand in San Bernardino and watching huge crowds flock to a Mexican restaurant across the street. By the early 1950s, Bell had opened his first couple taco stands under the names El Taco and Taco-Tia, and in 1962, he opened the world’s first Taco Bell in Downey, California.
Taco Bell Sees Explosive Early Growth as a Franchise Operation
Glen Bell was quick to recognize the benefits of a franchise-style operation, and within a few years, the first Taco Bell franchise opened in Torrance, California. The brand grew quickly and Taco Bell opened its 100th location in 1967, just five years after George Bell opened the first location. While most Taco Bell restaurants at that time were based in California, the company was seeing significant growth eastward, and in 1968, Taco Bell launched its first restaurant east of the Mississippi. By the end of the decade, Taco Bell was going public with a portfolio of 325 franchisee-owned restaurants.
Changes in Taco Bell Ownership
Taco Bell underwent a shift in corporate ownership in 1978 when it was purchased by the massive conglomerate PepsiCo. Then in 1997, PepsiCo separated Taco Bell and its other restaurant chains to form Tricon Global Restaurants, which became Yum! Brands in 2002. Over that time span, Taco Bell experimented with targeting different demographics, creating Taco Bell Express, which emphasized low price and high volume in well-trafficked areas such as downtown locations, truck stops, and gas stations, and later dabbling high-end concepts with U.S. Taco Co. and Urban Taproom restaurants.
Taco Bell Publicity Stunts
Over the years, Taco Bell has been known for its innovative, if somewhat outlandish, “free taco” publicity stunts. The first was in 2001 when the company rolled a giant target out into the Pacific Ocean and declared that if any portion of the then-reentering Mir space station were to strike the target, everyone in America would receive a free taco. Ultimately, the target went unscathed and Taco Bell did not need to cash in the sizeable insurance policy it had taken out to cover the potential losses.
However, the “free taco” campaign has been resurrected in the form of the “Steal a Base, Steal a Taco” promotion centered on Major League Baseball’s World Series championship. Introduced in 2007, Taco Bell has run the promotion intermittently ever since, with the most recent “Steal a Base, Steal a Taco” event being held during the 2018 World Series, when Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox won all of America a free taco when he successfully stole a base in Game One.
Taco Bell Cross-Promotions with Other Brands
Taco Bell also has a history of innovative cross-promotions with other brands, from marketing campaigns coinciding with blockbuster movie releases to combination products featuring Frito-Lay brand products. In 2012, Taco Bell and Frito-Lay introduced Doritos Locos Tacos, which feature a shell flavored with Doritos Nacho Cheese flavor, making the shell a giant Doritos chip.
That same year, Taco Bell also entered the fierce competition for fast-food breakfast by collaborating with several established brands such as Johnsonville Foods, Cinnabon, and Seattle’s Best Coffee. Following several exclusive-release engagements with Mountain Dew, Taco Bell also announced plans to introduce Mountain Dew A.M., a Mountain Dew-infused morning energy drink.
Taco Bell Responds to More Health-Conscious Consumers
Aside from teaming up with other recognizable brands to increase desirability and store traffic, Taco Bell also gave a nod to the healthy-food movement when it released its “Cantina Menu” – which supposedly featured healthier, fresher options to supplement the Taco Bell staples- in 2012. The Cantina Menu was created with celebrity chef Lorena Garcia, a Venezuelan chef famous for having competed on the cooking show Top Chef Masters.
In another sign of its willingness to evolve with the times, Taco Bell announced in 2013 that it was ending the sales of all kid’s meals and toys, which critics had claimed were partially responsible for establishing unhealthy eating habits in children and contributing to the nation’s obesity epidemic.
Lessons from the Taco Bell Brand History
One lesson we can take from Taco Bell’s brand history is that companies do not last for more than half a century by sticking to the same old formulas or refusing to change with the times. While some marketing endeavors have been criticized for being too outlandish and some attempts to attract different demographics have been unsuccessful, Taco Bell has shown a willingness to evolve and to try new things. Also of importance is the notion that Taco Bell has communicate its willingness to change and adapt its potential customers.
Taco Bell Logo Design History and Evolution
1962 Original Taco Bell Logo
Central to the evolution of the Taco Bell brand has been the Taco Bell logo. The original logotype, created in 1962, featured colorful lettering in a playful, toy-block design (sometimes known as “dancing” letters) that also featured a sombrero. This original Taco Bell logo, which, much like the original restaurant, could be considered cultural appropriation by today’s standards, lasted for nearly a decade to adorn Taco Bell restaurants as they popped up across the nation.
1973 Taco Bell Logo
In 1973, Taco Bell introduced the first change to logo’s classic design. Gone were the “dancing” multi-colored letters and sombrero, and in their place were simple, uniformly brown letters.
1984 Taco Bell Logo
The 1973 Taco Bell logo design lasted about a decade before it was updated in 1984/85 by a revolutionary Taco Bell logo. This one introduced what would become the logo’s defining element: the bell. About seven years after George Bell sold his remaining ownership interests in the company he had created, the evolution of the “Bell” in the “Taco Bell” name to an actual, literal bell was complete. The new Taco Bell logo also introduced a novel color scheme that was intended to be more inviting, but which also mirrored the colors of a taco with its orange (cheese), yellow (shell), and red (salsa).
1990s Taco Bell Logo
Changing with the times again, the Taco Bell logo underwent another evolution in the 1990s. The company kept the image of the bell and the company name but tossed just about everything else. The new color scheme was a dramatic departure from the brown color of the letters in the 1980s Taco Bell logo, and it incorporated hues like purple and pink with a more contemporary, tilted bell design to give the impression that the bell was in mid-ring. The new, sleek Taco Bell logo was announced with much fanfare at the opening of a new flagship restaurant in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The Taco Bell Logo Today
Bowing to an increased desire by franchisees to customize the Taco Bell logo with personalized patterns and colors, Taco Bell introduced a simple, minimalistic modification of the design in 2016 that let franchisees play a larger role in the marketing of their individual locations. This more customizable Taco Bell logo represents a shift in recent years that has shown franchisees seeking, and franchisors allowing, increased variations among locations, which is a major concession on the part of franchisors.
By examining the past half-century of Taco Bell’s branding through the various incarnations of the Taco Bell logo, we can gain a great deal of insight not only into the company’s history, but also the evolution of the American consumer over several decades. Americans both shape and are shaped by some of the United States’ most prominent brands, which play a big role in defining and our culture at any given time.
Like it or not, fast-food restaurants have played a major role over the past 50 years of American society, and some have even influenced some of the cultural changes that have taken place during that time. From an early design featuring a sombrero and multicolored “dancing” letters that might be considered unacceptable by today’s standards to a more minimalist design that individual franchisees can customize easily, the history of the Taco Bell logo mirrors the history of America in many ways.