When I wrote in February that Chipotle deserves to be taken seriously as an innovator just like Apple, the reaction of the Bay Area burrito snobs was fast and vicious. But in the circles that count, it’s clear that Chipotle is regarded as a major innovator, attracting what all major innovators attract: copycatting. So it’s no coincidence that after a couple of years of crazy growth from Chipotle, Taco Bell feels it has to step up its game. Thus, this summer the country’s leading quasi-Mexican fast-food chain has rolled out its new Cantina Bell line of upscale menu items.
Of course, allegations of copycatting can grow contentious, as in Apple’s ongoing mega-litigation against Samsung. From a consumer viewpoint, this effort to squelch competition is preposterous. But common sense says it’s no coincidence that all modern smartphones are little slabs with large multitouch screens and full-screen apps. Once a compelling idea meets success in the marketplace, other people rush in to serve the newly identified market not with identical products but with similar ones. It’s a worthwhile process because firms gain efficiency by specializing and narrowcasting. And because consumer preference vary, we’re better off having a bunch of different companies offering different variations on the same basic theme. Thus, while Chipotle will give you a chicken burrito with black beans and cilantro-lime rice, the Cantina Bell burrito offers citrus-marinated chicken, cilantro rice, and black beans. Different—but not too different.
But beyond the food, the telling element here is the marketing. Taco Bell is traditionally known for making waves with things like its FourthMeal campaign and its Doritos Locos Tacos, offerings that positively revel in fast food’s bad reputation. Taco Bell, these items scream, is the restaurant for you if you happen to be very drunk or extremely high.
Cantina Bell is branded separately, with its own website and classy photography. The face of the marketing campaign isn’t brash young dudes scarfing burritos—it’s a chef, Lorena Garcia, handcrafting the food. She’s even Latin American (albeit Venezuelan rather than Mexican, but in any case burritos appear to be an authentic product of California), vaguely suggesting an enhanced level of culinary authenticity. In line with the upscale presentation, Cantina Bell’s food is pricier than most Taco Bell offerings, albeit still cheaper than Chipotle. And people seem to like it. Nobody’s claiming this is the greatest meal on the planet, but it’s widely hailed as a great value.