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Taco Bell’s digital journey boasts a clever and concise name: All Access. But its definition and reach defy its moniker as it’s about giving guests at its 6,875 restaurants an all-access pass to the brand.

That’s because Taco Bell is very aware of how entrenched digital is becoming in the consumer’s lifestyle — from booking flights, to using kiosks for hotel check-in, to tapping apps for hailing a cab and ordering up every and anything needed in life, from food to household sundries.

“It didn’t happen overnight but it also didn’t happen that long ago. All those industries [airlines, taxis, hotels, retail] have been disrupted and have had to innovate to survive and meet the changing customer expectation,” said Rafik Hanna, senior director of Taco Bell’s All Access in a keynote presentation at the recent ICX Summit in Dallas.

Hanna, who has served in the role for three years, took the stage to share how and why Taco Bell is taking advantage of the unique opportunity to innovate and how “tech is woven into the fabric of what we do.”

What Taco Bell does best is tacos, but it’s also been deploying interactive customer experiences as well, especially during the past few years.

“Tech and digital is in everything we do,” noted Hanna. The 56-year-old restaurant chain and franchisor is owned by Yum! Brands, which also owns KFC and Pizza Hut. Yum! opens an average of seven new restaurants a day.

Taco Bell is a $10 billion enterprise and expects to grow to $15 billion and increase its restaurant roster to 9,000. The brand, said Hanna, is in a “category of one.”

“There is no one out there like us, we march to the beat of our own drum. Innovation and creativity are part of our DNA,” he said. “We never follow.”

The innovation ranges from dynamic food options and events such as Free Taco Day and Nacho Fries (the best-selling Taco Bell product launch ever with 100 million sold in 10 weeks — and yes, they are very likely coming back to the menu at some point) to online and digital customer experience strategies.

It’s also very busy partnering to expand its brand with professional sports (NBA, MLB) to Lyft to establishing its Taco Bell Foundation that offers scholarships. The partnerships reflect its belief that connecting with people — consumers — is key to advancing the brand and constantly enriching the customer experience.

“People want to connect, share with you [the brand]. We went all in with the brand evolution and driving an immersive digital experience,” he said, using Taco Bell’s Las Vegas location as a prime example. The restaurant is open 24 hours a day and offers a complete Taco Bell themed wedding package for $600.

Its digital success, said Hanna, is tied to the philosophy that technology must be on the agenda of every meeting taking place within Taco Bell.

“It’s [technology] a pivotal part of our business, it’s really valued. Technology can be a strategic growth driver and it should not be marginalized anywhere,” he said, adding that digital technology strategy must be cross functional.

In a nutshell, or a taco shell, that means blurring the legacy lines separating business from the IT entity within the business and equipping the brand to be fast and nimble.

“You need to think digital, not think of it as an afterthought. It should be at forefront of everything you’re doing as a company.”

That view is why Taco Bell was the first quick service restaurant to offer customers order ahead, pay ahead functionality through a mobile app.

“It got the wheels rolling as this is the future.”

Another key aspect within the digital strategy is connecting with fans even when they’re not in a Taco Bell — out on social media platforms.

“We’re there every day and in our brand voice and dialed into knowing what our fans like,” he said.

The past few years have been extremely busy for Taco Bell’s digital and technology teams as it has refreshed point of sale at more than 2,000 restaurants, deployed digital menu boards, and is upgrading the Wi-Fi and network infrastructure to help support digital technologies now and into the future.

It’s relocated its data and business analytics to the cloud and has digitalized all its workforce learning materials as instruction is now done using tablets.

“We are intentional about becoming an all-access brand, meeting customers where they want to interact with us.”

Taco Bell’s goal, he added, is to remove all friction for customers. To make that happen, it’s adjusted what was once a longtime mindset within the restaurant industry.

“Yesterday the restaurant was the center of the universe. Today the consumer is at the center.”

So, the quest involves eliminating lines and wait time with easy and fast ordering and order delivery and pickup. It’s partnered with GrubHub to expand delivery services and relaunched its brand website ( where customers can order, rapid re-order and customize orders. It also relaunched its mobile apps this past Spring, for both iOS and Android device users.

Going forward self-service kiosks will be playing a starring role as the technology represents “the next frontier,” said Hanna. The plan is to put kiosks in all U.S.-based Taco Bells by the end of 2019.

“We are early on in the kiosk strategy,” he said, adding the focus is using agile software to improve the experience as even “small changes can yield big results.” The goal is improved ordering accuracy and modernizing the order experience.

Hanna also told the summit session audience that the big take-away from Taco Bell’s digital accomplishments is simple: Brands need to drive your digital transition and always ask the question “what is in it for the customer?”

“We do that constantly, on every feature, we ask what will change. Our goal is to always make it easy or make it awesome or ideally, we do both, while keeping the customer at the core of all we are doing.”

Such a strategy, he acknowledged, does come with some risk.

“You have to take some risk, set big goals. You learn. You fail. Just be intentional about your agenda, decide on projects that will move the needle. Think big. Go for broke,” he said.

“We’re always asking what’s the next big idea? We’re really proud of our digital transformation at Taco Bell but we know the work will never end as we always live in beta.”

Judy Mottl

Judy Mottl is an experienced editor, reporter and blogger who has worked for top media including AOL, InformationWeek and InternetNews. She’s written everything from breaking news to in-depth trends. She loves a great pitch so email here, follow on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.

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