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While the last two years may have given many companies cause to pause, or play it safe, that certainly wasn’t the way Taco Bell went about it.

When customers were no longer able to dine in, the company quickly turned to experimentation with the drive-thru, investing in its digital-first “Go Mobile” concept. The quick-service restaurant chain then took this thinking to another level, last year unveiling plans for the impressive “Defy” prototype, which totally reimagines the off-premise experience. 

For Mark King, who’d only stepped into the role of CEO — and a totally new industry — months earlier, ramping up efforts in innovation was absolutely necessary to keep up with the rate of change that Covid was forcing upon everyone. 

“About 10 years ago, the world really started to change. There was new technology, and a younger generation wanted a seat at the table to be heard. But 18 months ago, things began to accelerate even more when COVID hit. How do we work in a world that has changed as much in 10 years as the last 18 months, it’s radical,” King explained during his keynote presentation at RetailSpaces.  

In order to adapt to such radical, and rapid, change, King relied on an extensive history of successfully adapting retailers for new realities.   

Learning to Disrupt Yourself

“Decision-making is based on knowledge, wisdom and experience,” King said.  

When King began at TaylorMade in 2000, the company was struggling. King thought to go directly to customers.  

“We went out to talk to golfers and found that their needs were not being satisfied. They were interested in new products, but they were only being brought out every three to five years.”  



Armed with this new information, TaylorMade changed their processes and began releasing new items every 12 months. In the end, the company doubled their business.  

“What happened, and can happen to any business, is that mature industries operate based on the way it has always been. Then somebody comes along and says we can do it differently. One thing I learned was that your industry is going to be disrupted. The question is, who is going to disrupt it? We should all be trying to disrupt our own model.”  

Backing Your Greatest Resource

Disruption was one of the key elements King brought to struggling ADIDAS North America.  

“I didn’t know what to do, this was new to me,” he said. “At my first all-employee meeting, I got up and said we haven’t had a lot of success, but we have a lot of great people.” 

King brought in a consultant, built a training module and helped employees tap into their creative tools. The module launched in February with about 2,000 employees volunteering to share their ideas.  

After the eight weeks, there were 1,000 business plans.  

“We had these ideas we were really excited about, and employees were really excited to think, challenge and build the future,” King said.  

One idea to come from the program was to bring in a celebrity who was not affiliated with sports and give them an opportunity to build their own brand. Yeezy, from Kanye West, was born. In five years, the brand became a $1 billion franchise to ADIDAS.  

“At TaylorMade, I learned that you have to be in pursuit of something new and different,” King said. “At ADIDAS, I found that if you engage those in your company to help find solutions, all kinds of great things change.” 

Doing Things Differently

When King was called out of retirement by Taco Bell, he wasn’t sold on the idea of working for a restaurant brand after decades in retail. Still, he took the gig in late summer 2019 and enjoyed a few months of relative peace. Then the pandemic hit.  


 Taco Bell Rewards App

“My guess is that everyone mid-March 2020 was wondering how are we going to survive,” King said. “In the early days, it was survive. What do we have to do for the safety of employees, team members and customers? Safety became our number one thing to focus on.”  

As the pandemic continued, Taco Bell shifted its focus to maintaining business. 

King turned his attention to how to make up the losses experienced by closed dining rooms. 

While Taco Bell wasn’t a digital company, didn’t offer delivery and had a very slim loyalty program, those things changed almost overnight. By the end of the summer, the company had signed up with several delivery services and jumped to almost 15 million people in their loyalty program.  

“For me, when faced with a crisis you can do things you never thought possible,” King said. “But why do we wait for a crisis to do things differently or more effectively? What I think is that this acceleration of change is something we should do ourselves, not just waiting for it to be a crisis.” 

Moving forward  

Though the pandemic continues to influence businesses, Taco Bell and King move forward. 

From investigating new ways to use dining rooms to reimagining the drive-thru experience with Defy, King is constantly thinking of how the business can adapt.  

“It will take time, but my message here to you is: you have things, are you really using them to the best utilization?” he asked. “We find that the more we challenge the way we are organized and how we think about business and assets, the more things happen that are quite phenomenal.”  

King believes there are three basic principles that today’s leaders should possess.  

  • Have an open mind that the way the world looks today will not look that way in a short period of time
  • Engage people in thinking about how it will look and use their connectivity 
  • Have courage to adapt and adapt with speed

“COVID was really hard for us at the beginning,” King said. “The more we look back, the more the door opened for us. We’re more excited about the future than we were 18-months ago.”

Ashlee Kieler

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Ashlee Kieler is an experienced multimedia journalist based in Iowa. She is passionate about telling stories about healthcare, education, retail and a smorgasbord of other topics.

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