Taco Bell CMO on connecting the dots in a new way

Women in retail

In celebration of Women’s History Month, we are highlighting female leaders in the retail industry. From small business owners to CEOs, women are leading the way. 

Two years ago, Marisa Thalberg left the world of beauty in pursuit of fast food. As the chief marketing officer at Taco Bell, Thalberg leads the team responsible for such innovative and engaging ideas as last Cinco de Mayo’s hit Snapchat lens that turned users’ heads into hard-shell tacos. Her leadership and transformative creativity landed her a spot among Power Players on The List of People Shaping Retail’s Future 2017.

We spoke with Thalberg about engaging with customers in today’s digital landscape, redefining the way society looks at juggling a career and motherhood and raising the bar for marketing innovation at Taco Bell.

Marisa Thalberg

Marisa Thalberg

Prior to joining Taco Bell, you spent eight years working at The Estée Lauder Companies. How did you manage the transition from marketing the world of beauty to one filled with tacos, gorditas and chalupas?
Not the most obvious of career transitions, is it? Frankly, though, as I was considering this move my mind kept leaning toward the commonalities more than the obvious dissimilarities. I feel I went from products and brands people crave and that sit in culture, to a brand and products people truly crave and that definitely sit in culture.

The thing that energizes me about being a marketer in our ever-changing world is getting to learn, apply and, most of all, try to connect the dots in ways they have not been connected before. That is really how I approached my move to Taco Bell.

How have innovations in marketing changed the way Taco Bell connects with its consumers?
The advent of digital and social media has profoundly changed the way people connect with one another, and in turn how brands connect with people. As a marketer who was an early evangelist of digital and social media, I feel tremendous pride in how the Taco Bell team continues to raise the bar in this area.

From being one of the first — and I would say still one of the best — brands on Snapchat to creating amazing content for every major social ecosystem, this is a big way we can tap into and fuel a lot of brand love. One thing that has remained a constant is that great storytelling always wins.

“The thing that energizes me about being a marketer in our ever-changing world is getting to learn, apply and, most of all, try to connect the dots in ways they have not been connected before."

Marisa Thalberg
Chief Marketing Officer, Taco Bell

What exciting things can we expect to see from Taco Bell in the near future?
We are always generating amazing new product innovation that could only come from Taco Bell, and lots of moments that reflect the unique [role] Taco Bell plays in culture. The opening of our Vegas flagship — where we have a great retail lineup of lifestyle merchandise, spiked freezes, a DJ and, coming soon, Taco Bell weddings — is a great snapshot. You are just going to have to use your imagination!

You’re also the founder and president of Executive Moms. Can you share a little about what the platform is and what inspired you to create this space for working mothers?
Yes, dating back all the way to 2002, before social media! I became a mom for the first time in December 2000, and as I was searching for community — even in New York City, which I think is a bastion of worklife — it was surprising and disheartening to me that there was really nothing for women who were passionate about their careers and passionate about motherhood. The more I asked around, the more the answer was, “We don’t know why this doesn’t exist. And you need to start it.” So, not too much later, I ironically moved to address my own working mom questions by launching a second career with Executive Moms.

For many years, Executive Moms was the preeminent destination for content and community for amazing women who are — as the name indicates — both executives and moms. (I actually love the dichotomy of those words together.) We had big events based in New York, but also a national membership who subscribed to our weekly Executive Momorandum content and community.

While [Executive Moms] has become more dormant over the past couple of years as my own executive career, changing lifestage and more ways for women to connect evolved, this will always be a hugely important platform for me. I still believe the media and popular culture do a terrible job of depicting “executive moms” in the real, positive light that reflects the vast majority of the women I’ve met along the way. My key insight is that this is an audience of truly accomplished, “together” women who benefit simply from a sense of camaraderie, community and practical ideas that we were able to provide for many years.

What advice would you give to young women interested in careers in retail?
Retail is fast and it is in a state of significant change. I think the opportunity to connect people to the goods and experiences they need and want is tremendously exciting. It has never been more important, though, than it is today to approach this industry from a customer-centric standpoint. That — along with a really imaginative mindset — is what this industry needs to create the retail leaders of tomorrow.