Can Taco Bell Succeed With its Copycat Fast-Food Diet?

With the start of a new year comes resolutions from millions of Americans to lose weight, a Sisyphean task that has kept Weight Watchers and Slim-Fast in business for decades. Now, Taco Bell, the fast-food restaurant owned by Yum! Brands (YUM), has jumped into the fray with a marketing plan that's remarkably similar to Subway's decade-old Jared campaign.Much like Jared Fogle, campaign spokeswoman Christine Dougherty wrote to Taco Bell to explain she lost 54 pounds by incorporating Taco Bell's Fresco items into her diet. Her story is now featured on Taco Bell's site with an infomercial. in response to the recently-launched campaign, Taco Bell has faced skepticism and hostility from bloggers and news outlets, not just for the perceived rip-off of Subway's campaign but because of the fine print that reads the "Drive-Thru-Diet is not a weight-loss program."

%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% "We mean "Drive-Thru-Diet" to be a noun, not a verb," Tom Wagner, Taco Bell's vice president of consumer insight, tells DailyFinance. "It's not intended to be marketed as a weight-loss program."

That bit of semantics may fly over the heads of many consumers, who will undoubtedly be convinced by Dougherty, that they too may lose weight by eating the lower-calorie Taco Bell Fresco menu.

A Fast-Food Diet Bonanza

Is there enough room for Americans to stomach two similar fast-food marketing campaigns? "There's plenty of room for more than one national chain to offer lower fat, lower calorie menus," Wagner says. "There's enough people looking for better options."

The campaign was first tested -- without Christine Dougherty -- in Omaha and Tuscon as a way to offer a menu of lower-calorie items. As the company was developing the marketing plan, Dougherty wrote to Taco Bell about how incorporating Fresco tacos into her diet helped her lose weight. Taco Bell's due diligence included checking her credit-card receipts to ensure she had actually been eating at Taco Bell to checking that restaurant managers knew her, Wagner says.

From Subway's point of view, Taco Bell's "imitation is the most sincere form of flattery," says Tony Pace, chief marketing officer of the Subway Franchisee Advertising Fund. "It may help us, because it evokes Subway as being a leader," he says, adding that Subway isn't planning a formal response. "We find it curious that it's called the "Drive-Thru-Diet -- you're encouraging sedentary behavior with a drive-through," he says.

Backlash from the Blogosphere

As for Taco Bell's infomercial, which has the feeling of a flat Saturday Night Live ad parody, it was meant with "a wink" and to get people talking, Wagner says. "No one had ever done an infomercial in the fast-food arena," he says.

Yet, the campaign may be attracting the type of talk that Taco Bell probably doesn't want. Positive comments about Taco Bell on blogs and social media have fallen to 67%, compared with 73% positive before the campaign rolled out, Advertising Age reports, citing Zeta Interactive.

Taco Bell anticipated some negative feedback from the campaign, says Wagner. Early sales, he says, are promising, although he declined to disclose specifics. "The repeat purchase [of the Fresco items] is the highest of anything we've ever sold," Wagner adds. "I can understand that someone can say this is like Jared, but this wasn't our intent."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Jared Fogle's last name.
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