Why Tacos Are Not Mexican Food

September 23, 2019

It was in the 1970s and I had been working in the US for a few years.  I was hired to work with a client, Heublein, that had been in the liquor business for some time.  They had recently purchased a couple food companies and had hired product managers, mostly from General Foods, to work on the products.

I had worked a lot with General Foods so it seemed like a good fit.  Our task was to increase the sales of their Mexican foods.  There were two existing lines: Ortega chiles and Snap-E-Tom tomato juice with chiles in the juice.

There was already in the market nationally a line called Old El Paso, which was generally located in a small section in the ethnic or international foods of most grocery stores. They had many Mexican food products from taco seasoning to jalapeños to nopalitos (pickled cactus) to refried beans.  It was not mainstream.

Regionally, in the southwest of the US which used to be part of Mexico, there were many Mexican food products, usually each brand specialized – Rosarita produced refried beans, Ortega had chiles, there were many hot sauces and so forth.  Once you were out of the southwest, Mexican foods were treated as exotic and were generally unknown.

Taco Bell fast food stores, in that era, were limited to California and the southwestern US.  This was decades before the Food Channel. US citizens were even more xenophobic in that era than they are today.

Our strategy to launch Ortega was to focus on a simple-to-make taco kit and present it as mainstream as possible.  Our model was based on pizza, a food which was no longer considered Italian ethnic food but something everyone was familiar with and liked.

The advertising we developed focused on families having fun making and eating their own taco.  The phrases “I like making them” and “I like eating them” were repeated by a series of mainstream looking   The day after recall (DAR) of the commercial set records in the Burke DAR test with a score of 54.  I had been used to commercials that scored around 20, so this one hit it out of the ballpark.

Ortega was known for producing the best canned green chiles, Anaheims from the Oxnard area northwest of L.A.,  so a lot of our advertising elements played on “the best chiles make the best sauce” when we did individual ads for taco sauce or other elements.  But our approach was always, “tacos are an everyday food” and we made little or no reference to their being Mexican.

For the huge chunk of the US that was formerly part of Mexico, tacos were just everyday food.  For the rest of the US, tacos rapidly did become an everyday food, pretty much like pizza.  It taught me that integrating a new idea is easier if people think it is nothing unusual, just an extension of what they were already doing.

I have used the same strategy with fast food clients – when Subway introduced a chipotle chicken sub, when Extreme Pita did Asian based pitas and when Mucho Burrito was launched.  People are generally hesitant to be too daring, but if they are assured it is a small step worth taking, they will take it.  So often the unfamiliar can be broken down into familiar elements.

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