Taco Bell thinks fast food breakfast is boring – and it's looking to cash in on an alternative.
Equipped with Waffle Tacos, a fierce social media following and burrito patterned socks, the chain is aiming to take a bite of the lucrative breakfast market while branding itself the 'edgy' fast-food giant.
"There's no reason why you can't take what I believe has been marketed as a pretty boring day part and turn it into a part of culture and a part of the way people want to live today," says Taco Bell President Brian Niccol of the chain's breakfast menu, which launched Thursday. "And I think that's part of the alternative lifestyle of breakfast."
Alternative lifestyle of breakfast? For Niccol, Taco Bell isn't just selling breakfast food – it's selling millennials culture.
Interest in breakfast has recently exploded across the fast-food sector. McDonald's, long the No. 1 in fast-food breakfast presence, has doubled down with its McCafe offerings. Meanwhile, Burger King, Starbucks and Jack in the Box have all introduced new breakfast items over the last few months.
The reason? It's a category that's growing. While consumers cut back on their lunch and dinner restaurant visits last year, breakfast visits increased for the fourth straight year, mostly in the quick-service sector, according to research firm NPD Group. The trend is expected to continue, with NPD predicting a 9 percent jump in quick-service breakfast traffic over the next nine years.
Taco Bell, which had no breakfast menu prior to this week, decided not only to enter the breakfast market for the first time, but make it its own.
"We try to take what people already know and put a twist on it," says Niccol.
That's how the Waffle Taco was born.
Taco Bell knew it had a hit when the hybrid breakfast item -- a combination of waffle, egg, cheese and optional bacon or sausage -- was being tested at a handful of stores and a photo of it spawned a small social-media frenzy.
That's the kind of reaction the company was looking for. "I'd rather have people have an opinion than no opinion. I don't want to be in the land of same-ness," says Niccol. "I'd rather be in the land of, you either love it, or you can tell me why you don't love it. What I don't want is bland."
The millennial market
No one has responded more strongly to the Taco Bell breakfast rollout than millennials.
"Our brand is at its best when it's connected to that youthful generation. The brand always needs to be 22, 23, 24 years old," says Niccol. "It cannot age."
Most brands compete for the coveted millennial market to some degree. The importance of social media has skyrocketed, and Taco Bell has the numbers, with 10 million Facebook fans, more than 1 million Twitter followers and around 326,000 Instagram followers.
On Thursday, Niccol took to Reddit for an "Ask Me Anything" session in which users could ask him questions about a variety of topics. He wasn't afraid to let loose. When asked "When is [breakfast] coming to Canada?" he responded, "When you take Justin Bieber back."
While taking to social media is expected for brands, Taco Bell has found a way to tap it through more organic methods.
The Waffle Taco and, to a lesser degree, the A.M. Crunchwrap and Cinnabon Delights hit millennials' social media sweet spot of offering customers something distinctly unique and sharable. The mashup factor, which hit hard in 2013 with food such as the Cronut and Ramen Burger, has roots in Taco Bell's own Doritos Locos Tacos. Marketing plays such as the 'Breakfast Phone,' where 1,000 Taco Bell fans were sent burner phones and instructed to complete missions for prizes such as Crunchwrap bed sheets, further helped produce peer-generated advertising.
Related: 5 Social Media Tricks to Boost Your Business
Creating a culture of coolness
Ultimately, by appealing to millennials Taco Bell aims to be more than another fast food chain.
"The way I believe our brand is positioned is it's a brand that drives culture," says Niccol. "And there's a couple things that drive culture: food, fashion, music, art."
Since 2006, Taco Bell's Feed the Beat program has boosted exposure for more than 600 artists and bands. More recent forays into fashion and art have turned up in the 'Live Mas' store, with t-shirts, rings, onesies and skateboards.
"[Millennials] want to be a part of the brand. They want it to be carried as a badge," says Niccol. "If they think you're doing the right thing, they think you're part of culture, they think you're current: huge loyalty, huge fans."
As a huge chain, however, Taco Bell must toe the line between being on the cutting edge of culture and not scaring off any potential customers.
"We've got to make sure no one believes our food is too spicy or 'too Mexican,'" says Niccol, referring to the chain's most recent ad, which features people around the U.S. named 'Ronald McDonald' endorsing Taco Bell breakfast offerings.
As trendy restaurants compete over who serves up the most authentic food, Taco Bell doesn't try to step into that ring of cultural relevance. Instead, it hopes to become a part of culture as a slightly alternative, beloved brand, an integral part of millennials' lives.
Will its alternative lifestyle of breakfast be able to overtake the McMuffin? While time will be the ultimate judge, McDonald's seems on guard – the chain announced today that it would offer two weeks of free McCafe coffee during breakfast hours.
More From Entrepreneur