Saturday, June 4, 2016

A Bun-less Revolution

For five years, Californian Richard Axton tirelessly campaigned for Taco Bell to bring back the Fritos-loaded Beefy Crunch Burrito. Now that the cult favorite item is once again on the fast food chain’s national menu, Axton reflects on his half-decade long crusade – and how his journey demonstrates the impact of social media in changing the nature of consumer/brand relations.

A FREEDOM FIGHTER FOR FRITOS: 28-year-old Richard Axton has waged a five-year struggle against the Taco Bell upper brass to bring his beloved Beefy Crunch Burrito back to the fast food monolith's menu. After mobilizing more than 41,000 online troops, the nation's sixth-largest quick service restaurant surrendered to the 'Beefy Crunch Movement' earlier this year. (Photograph courtesy of Richard Axton)

By: James Swift

In 2011, Richard Axton – now 28 – was living with his parents and looking for a steady job. In some respects, the epoch could be described as the “B.D.L.T” era – before Doritos Locos Tacos.

“At the time, there were no other Frito-Lay infused items,” the Salinas, Calif. native recollects. “This was like the beginning of what was to come.”

Although Axton describes himself as a long-time Taco Bell consumer – the sixth largest fast food chain in the United States, with revenue in 2015 just shy of the $2 billion mark – he said he wasn’t that big of a fan until they rolled out the Fritos-stuffed Beefy Crunch Burrito.

In an endorsement posted on the official Taco Bell website, Axton poetically describes the burrito with flowery, yearning prose reminiscent of The Song of Songs.

The co-branded value menu offering made its debut in Dec. 2010. Axton said he felt a flurry of emotions – anger, shock and most definitely disappointment – when the item was pulled from the chain’s line-up in May 2011.

“They have limited time items that come and go, but this one just seemed a little too special to be gone,” he recollected.

So Axton took to Facebook to voice his displeasure. Inspired by fan pages for other discontinued products and consumer causes, he decided to launch a social media campaign – ambitiously titled “Three Million Fans to Get the Beefy Crunch Back” – to goad Taco Bell into reissuing the fried corn-chip imbued item.

Initially, Axton said his online campaigning was just for fun. But as the social media crusade garnered more and more followers, he began investing more time into the project. Eventually, he found himself spending two to three hours a day online, drumming up social media support for the product’s resurrection.

Eventually, the suits at Taco Bell took note of Axton’s digital canvassing. In Dec. 2011, executives flew him down to the company headquarters in Irvine, Calif., where he was asked for his input on ideas for a 2012 Beefy Crunch relaunch. They even let Axton make the public announcement that the item was coming back to the chain’s 6,500-plus stores across the U.S.

Alas, the second coming of the Beefy Crunch Burrito was short-lived. In March 2012, the product was removed from the nationwide menu for a second time.

Axton, however, would not be deterred. Determined to see the product revived as a full-time offering (a third promotion briefly ran from May to Aug. 2013), he intensified his social media campaign and began more aggressively targeting Taco Bell. In 2014, he rechristened his project as “The Beefy Crunch Movement,” complete with an official battle flag displaying a trio of Industrial Workers of the World-inspired clenched fists waving the burritos in protest.

At that point, the official campaign website had about 16,000 Facebook followers. As committed as he may be, Axton said many Beefy Crunch fans he met online are even more gaga over the burrito.

When a Louisville, Ky. store was chosen as a test site for a “Throwback Burrito” promotion, some Beefy Crunch loyalists traveled more than 1,000 miles to get their hands on the product. Another fan demonstrated his support for the discontinued product by eating a burrito while sky divingAnd as perhaps the ultimate display of Beefy Crunch fandom, Axton said he is aware of at least three people who went out and got tattoos celebrating the burrito.

“If this isn't a testament to just how good these burritos are, and the great lengths people will take to prove their love,” Axton said, “then I don't know what is.”

Crunch Burrito, originally released in late 2010, has
become a Taco Bell cult favorite, with some hardcore
fans going as far as to leap out of airplanes and get tattoos
to display their admiration for the product.
War is Declared

In late 2015, Axton said his motivation to continue the campaign had reached an all-time low. Although the ranks of the Beefy Crunch Movement were swelling with new recruits, he had grown tired of Taco Bell’s inaction. It almost seemed like the Yum! Brands subsidiary was taunting the Beefy Crunch faithful with products like the Beefy Fritos Burrito, a 2014 menu addendum that was basically a milder, no-frills imitation of the original. Even after Taco Bell introduced a new mobile app allowing consumers to custom build their own burritos, recreating the Beefy Crunch Burrito was impossible since Flamin’ Hot Fritos chips weren’t offered as a mix-in.

The last straw, so to speak, was when Tressie Lieberman – Taco Bell’s vice president of digital innovation – instructed an online social media marketing course for Northwestern University titled The Importance of Listening.

The irony – and from his point of view, hypocrisy – wasn’t lost on Axton.

Not only did he enroll in the course, he transcribed everything Liberman said. Upon learning of what Lieberman described as Taco Bell’s “social media war room” back at the Irvine headquarters, inspiration struck. “You want a war, I’ll show you a war,” Axton averred.

On the heels of the fifth anniversary of the Beefy Crunch Burrito’s release, Axton published a 14-page manifesto detailing a metaphorical declaration of war against Taco Bell. In the screed, he chided the Bell brass for refusing to listen to the 23,000 people clamoring for the product’s return, while lesser social media-borne movements demanding the return of obscurer brand offerings, such as Lava Sauce and the Triple Steak Stack, were promptly fulfilled. Employing the age-old “fight fire with fire” approach, large chunks of Axton’s declaration contained damning quotes from Taco Bell executives, including the following morsel from Chief Marketing Officer Chris Brandt: “As long as you are listening to the consumer, then you shouldn’t feel pressure from other people … because if I’m doing right by the consumer, then it’s going to work.”

Axton received correspondence from Taco Bell just 17 days after he ordered his online troops to take a virtual charge at the fast food juggernaut. “They called me back and said ‘let’s do a ceasefire,’” he said.

The general of the Beefy Crunch army would make a return visit to the company’s headquarters in March 2016. Although Axton signed a nondisclosure agreement to not reveal the details of his meetings, he vaguely asserts that he was clued into the recent product relaunch before Taco Bell publicized the news. As to just how early he knew about the fourth coming of the burrito, however, he isn’t saying.

On April 21 – almost five years to the day the original Beefy Crunch Burrito run came to an end – the product Axton and his 40,000 plus online supporters had been rallying behind for nearly half a decade finally made its big return to Taco Bell stores across America.

“As for bringing it back, at this point, I think it’s too early to say we had any real impact on the business decisions,” Axton modestly stated. “Obviously, there’s a lot that happens behind the scenes, in terms of the business aspect. I believe that our movement played a big part in the promotion of it, the social media aspect and the marketing and all that. They definitely played along with our community, which is great.”

The Battle Continues?

Axton’s friends and family were not always supportive of his campaign. However, after Taco Bell wheeled out the Beefy Crunch Burrito earlier this year – and quoted him extensively in the relaunched product’s advertising materials – they couldn’t help but congratulate him for his years of social media activism.

“When they started seeing things actually happen with it, they kind of changed from ‘you’re being weird and obsessive’ to ‘wow, you actually stood up for something and it’s going to happen.’”
online 'Beefy Crunch Movement' garnered 41,000-plus
followers, Taco Bell decided to give the masses what they
wanted and re-released the fan favorite burrito
nationwide  earlier this year.

Moreover, Axton has won the admiration of Ted Berg, lead baseball writer – and perhaps the nation's foremost Taco Bell beat reporter – for USA Today’s blog For The Win.

"If you look around enough on the Internet, you can find a Twitter account or a Facebook page campaigning to bring back just about every fast food menu item that has ever been discontinued,” Berg said. “But what set Richard and the Beefy Crunch Movement apart was sheer dedication. This is not a guy who started a Facebook page one day, forgot about it, and had Taco Bell stumble upon it much later. Richard spent years trying to convince Taco Bell to start putting Flamin' Hot Fritos inside burritos again, bombarding the Internet with a revolutionary's zeal. It's downright inspiring if you ask me.”

Interestingly, Axton took a low-key approach when it came time to celebrate the re-re-re-released product. Instead of throwing a big victory party on the day one relaunch, he merely ate two Beefy Crunch Burritos for lunch and dinner and called it a day. While he estimates he’s scarfed down around 20 of the burritos thus far, he’s given almost six times as many away to his online supporters.

The Beefy Crunch Movement, however, is far from over. While the burritos are once again on the Taco Bell menu, they are slated as limited-time-only offerings. Axton said he’s not going to stop advocating for the products until they become full-time fixtures of the fast food chain’s line-up. That is, as long as ennui doesn’t kick in first.

"If this is going to be a McRib, then they can just make this a McRib without me - I'm not going to be playing these games for a yearly tease. We must continue down a road towards a permanent solution or else what is the point to all of this?"

And not unlike Che Guevara, Axton said he’s totally down for lending aid and comfort to fellow revolutionaries in their quests to resuscitate other dormant fast food I.P.s. In fact, he’s even mulled another counteroffensive against Taco Bell, this time to prod the company into reviving its recently discontinued Verde Sauce.  

Without question, Axton said his long-running campaign demonstrates the populist power of coordinated social media movements. He likens Facebook to a digital bridge directly connecting consumers to the stewards of their favorite brands – and, to some extent, giving them a greater say in their executive decisions.

“I would say that this is a good example of, I think, a broader underlying sentiment with consumers and companies [that] consumers feel like they want to have a voice and this movement has given them an outlet to express [themselves] and now that Taco Bell is working with us, it’s encouraging,” Axton said. “I think this is a first step in the right direction of hopefully being that impactive and saying, ‘well, this is back solely because the fans wanted it and we’re going to try to find a way to make the business work around it,’ instead of ‘this is very convenient that the fans want it and we want to bring it back, so we’ll just use them.’”

And as for what made his half-decade long social media campaign so successful? Axton said it’s one part a shared object of admiration, and one part the camaraderie of collective celebration.

“It’s the burrito being so good,” he said, “but also the community allowing them to be more expressive of their passion.” 

Uncommon Journalism, 2016.

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