It sounds like a setup for a joke: Hey, did you hear the one about the high school swim champ who got Taco Bell to make him a customized Speedo?
It’s not a hoax, though — more of a lesson in the power of social media marketing and teenage chutzpah.
The week before Christmas, 15-year-old Ryan Klarner posted on Taco Bell’s Facebook page, introducing himself with a rundown of his swimming and diving achievements before making an offbeat request.
“[I]s there any way you guys could make me a customized Speedo that says think outside the buns on the back of it? If you did, that would mean the world to me,” the Illinois teen asked.
Taco Bell, a division of Yum! Brands, Inc., is quick to respond to gripes as well as kudos on its Facebook page. It also isn’t afraid to dive into the silly or the weird in the running conversation it has with its 9.5 million fans, but a request for a customized swimsuit was a new one, said Tressie Lieberman, director of digital and social engagement.
Klarner said he first came up with the idea a couple of years earlier and decided last month to go ahead and ask, even though he never had asked a company on Facebook for anything before. “I did not expect it to blow up as much as it has. I didn’t really expect to get the Speedo out of it, either,” he said.
But last Wednesday, the social media team at Taco Bell wrote back. “What size do you wear? And what’s your address?”
“He really wanted something and he went after it,” Lieberman said. When we think people are really extraordinary... then we want to reward them.”
Klarner said he was “really surprised” and “ecstatic” to hear back from the company after nearly two weeks. (The reply took as long as it did because the Taco Bell team was trying to track down a purple Speedo and come up with a design.)
“Beyond what we’re putting out to the masses, we want to engage with everyone individually,” Lieberman said. “It’s tough to respond to every single person... but we definitely want to make sure people know we’re listening.” When the company discontinued its fire-roasted salsa last year and fans protested, Lieberman said her team rounded up the final shipment and mailed out individual packages to those who posted the most vociferous objections.
In general, Taco Bell’s Facebook fans aren’t shy about asking for stuff: free food, branded merchandise, even jobs — but Lieberman said Klarner’s request, which racked up thousands of “likes” from other fans, caught her team’s attention.
“We’re seeing a lot of engagement with posts put on our wall by other fans. We really wanted to show Ryan we listened to him,” she said.
Since another element of social media is its immediacy, a quick turnaround was also a priority; even with the difficulty of tracking down a purple Speedo, Lieberman said Klarner will be getting his wish granted this week.
Klarner is actually getting two Speedos — since his request incorporated Taco Bell’s old tagline, “Think Outside the Bun,” Lieberman’s team also decided to give Klarner a second swimsuit with “Live Mas,” the slogan it adopted last year, printed on it.
Rules against corporate sponsorships will prevent Klarner from wearing the suits in competitions, but he said he’ll wear them to practices, where the rules are looser and his teammates have a tradition of wearing funny Speedos.
“But this is just way bigger than that,” he said. “I already loved Taco Bell to begin with... now it’s even more of a favorite." He said the chain's status had risen in his friends' eyes, too. "No one thought Taco Bell was this cool.”
From a marketing perspective, that scores a perfect 10.