Sports fans over the years have come to associate many brands with baseball’s Fall Classic. But perhaps no consumer brand aims to be as synonymous with the annual October event as Taco Bell.
The Yum Brands subsidiary wrapped up its seventh consecutive year of its “Steal a Base, Steal a Taco” campaign during the World Series last week, offering consumers free Doritos Locos tacos. Its relationship with MLB as an official partnering sponsor dates back 14 years, first introducing the popular activation to fans in 2007.
“Home runs pull people in, but stolen bases are just as important in the World Series,” said Will Bortz, Taco Bell’s director of brand partnerships, who helped come up with the promotion more than a decade ago. “We ran through a bunch of ideas at the time, including doing something around home runs, but we realized that at some point a big moment in the World Series will happen on the base paths.”
After Washington Nationals shortstop Trea Turner stole second base in game one, Taco Bell knew it was in for a busy sales period. Millions of Americans claim their free taco within 24 hours of a base being stolen, according to Bortz. Taco Bell additionally partnered with BetMGM this season to allow fans to bet on what player would open the floodgates at its brick-and-mortar locations.
The chain declined to disclose the financial impact its campaign has had historically on same-store sales. But Taco Bell did say it targets the all-important 18 to 49 age demographic when marketing during baseball games, the same as the NBA and college football. The restaurant operator spent an estimated $6.9 million on advertising during the World Series this year, according to ad measurement company iSpot.tv.
“On a sales basis, it’s a great day for us,” said Bortz. “But it’s the lasting impression on customers we are actually more proud of.”
One direct benefit from “Steal a Base, Steal a Taco” is that the advertising strategy turns first-time consumers of Taco Bell into returning customers, Bortz added. By showing off the brand, diners become privy to the breadth of options Taco Bell has available, including an all-new vegetarian menu launched this year and its growing portfolio of Taco Bell Cantina stores that serve alcohol.
“We look at MLB as being a great partner, and live sports as a cornerstone of our marketing strategy,” said Bortz. “Customers talk to us about the World Series as early as June.”
Yet baseball’s ultimate event has seen viewership decline in recent years. Through the first five games this year, an average of 11.6 million viewers tuned in to the World Series, according to global measurement and data analytics company Nielsen. At the time, the 2019 Fall Classic was on pace to become the least-watched World Series ever, the Associated Press reported.
Ratings did pick up for games six and seven, including a 23 million global audience for the deciding game, Fox said. But the series between the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals still finished as the least-watched World Series in five seasons.
“I think that those metrics are things to be aware of, but it’s not the end all be all of what we are doing,” Bortz said, in response. “We are less interested in the people that are falling off and more interested in the people we can bring in.”
In MLB’s defense, TV ratings are only a fragmentation of the total viewing market, with some fans following along with updates on social media or via streaming services, according to Bill Sutton, founding director of the University of South Florida’s Vinik Sport and Entertainment Management Program.
MLB remains a top sponsorship opportunity for brands, as it has both history – the U.S.’ oldest sport league – and unique access to the Latino community on its side, he said. Chances are the first sporting event many consumers went to as kids was a baseball game, and even more people have watched the All-Star Game and World Series on television going back decades.
“MLB’s aging viewership demographic is now comparable to golf and tennis, consumers with more disposable income,” said Sutton. “The NFL logs better numbers and the NBA taps into more demographics around the world, so it would be not as good as either of those leagues. But it’s still a solid opportunity.”