When Christopher Ayres started as Taco Bell’s creative director, he didn’t realize just how passionately some people loved the fast-food chain. “I didn’t even know how fervent the fandom was,” Ayers says. But that enthusiasm is what allowed the brand to lean into a playful persona that doesn’t take itself too seriously. “I think that’s what gives us the permission to be fun.”
Ayres was part of the company’s major 2016 rebrand, which transformed a dated ‘90s logo into something more modern and minimalist. The updated logo was flexible enough to let Taco Bell, the fast food brand people long associated with stoner food and their college days, play around with different identities in recent years. There was the chic, Instagrammable Bell Palm Springs hotel, with pillows and pool floaties in the form of hot sauce packets. And who could forget the Taco Bell 2032 Demolition Man experience at San Diego Comic-Con in 2018, which fully committed to a futuristic restaurant with Baja Blast mocktails and robot servers?
Before designing for everything from activations to chalupa wrappers, Ayres was responsible for another big rebrand: Barry’s Bootcamp. The fitness studio was in dire need of a refresh, with its military camo walls and generic text slapped on a dog tag as its logo. As a member, Ayers took it upon himself to design an entirely new identity in his spare time and eventually presented his work to the company, which hired him. The result was a sleek boutique studio with sexy club lighting that makes for an environment worth sweating in. I talked to Ayers about his career path, taking matters into your own hands, and designing for a Taco Bell Cantina in Las Vegas where people can get married.
Who do you think is the target Taco Bell customer? Who are you designing for?
Well, we do have a clear target. We like to think of it as an eternal 25-year-old. But beyond just a person, I do think that there’s something to be said for just a rebellious, disruptive spirit, but always doing it with a wink, or some awareness and humor. The cool part about it is whoever is 25 now is not what a 25-year-old was like 10 years ago, so it’s kind of always changing. So that allows us to keep our eyes on what’s happening in pop culture.
I feel like a lot of really fun innovations come from fast food brands. I remember Taco Bell made an Xbox that makes a “bong” sound when you start it up, and KFC made a Colonel Sanders dating sim game. Is there anything you’re working on like that in terms of digital, interactive experiences?
We do get a peek behind the curtain of what’s coming, but it’s really guarded, so I guess that’s my cop out. But when you bring up digital, we are thinking of different ways to rethink the consumer ordering experience. Whether it’s digital menu boards, or kiosks, or your mobile app, or the website, or, you know, “How do we reinvent a drive-thru?” On the surface that doesn’t seem as entertaining as a video game, but I actually think it’s really cool because if you look at the fast food industry, no one’s really innovated on how to make the drive-thru better, but we’re thinking through ideas on what could be the future of that. What can we get more efficient to make it faster, or give consumers more choices? Digitally, I would say a lot of our efforts focus on enhancing the user experience.
So while you’re working on user experiences and apps, I saw that you also worked on physical retail environments. Like Taco Bell Cantina in Las Vegas, which has a DJ on the second floor and people get married there sometimes! What is the secret to making people feel like this is a cool space that’s not like your mom’s Taco Bell?
Even our brand logo is kind of this vessel that we can pour into it whatever we want. So we kind of morph and meld depending on the different scenarios, contexts, and campaigns. I always like to say that you wouldn’t show up to your best friend’s bachelorette party in Vegas the same way you would at your grandma’s potluck. So I think Taco Bell is the same: we dress and act differently depending on which party we’re showing up to. So in Vegas, that’s how we look and feel and act with our consumers in Vegas. But that might not be the same for a standalone restaurant in Iowa. They’re still both us, but I think you tailor it to the different scenarios. And because we’ve iterated in that way over the years, I think we just have this permission to do so.
On the Vegas thing with the DJs and all that. I mean, why not? If that’s what our fans love and that’s what they’re doing, then I think we give ourselves the permission. And we don’t market to kids, right? There’s no Happy Meal or anything like that. So I could see how if we did do that, a DJ in Vegas seems disingenuous, there’s like a dissonance there. And so I think we’re always cognizant of who we are, and where we should belong.
That’s interesting. I never even thought about that. Like, there’s no Happy Meal for kids.
And I get it. A lot of people probably also associate Taco Bell with their college years, and we’ve stoked that flame over the years.
I know you worked on the Barry’s Bootcamp redesign. Living in New York, I’ve walked past it a couple times, and the gym looks and feels like a club. But I had no idea what it looked like before, with the whole military vibe. It’s really incredible because you worked on the redesign as a passion project in the beginning, and now it’s reality. How does something like that happen?
Let’s say you are just going through the motions every day and work whatever your job is. So, for me at that time in my life, I was really successful. And I was getting promoted and was working on all these really cool clients. So no complaints, but I just felt like there was something missing. For me, that passion project was just something I needed to get inspired. So I would encourage anyone just to find what that spark is for you and do it because you need to and you want to and you love it, not because you necessarily expect some kind of outcome. I didn’t expect an outcome. I just did it because it was something I loved.
How did that first meeting come about?
I was so friendly with the staff and so we went out for a night of drinks. And then I got drunk and told them about it. And they were like, “You should show the owners what you did.”
So I’m not telling people to go out and get drunk. (laughs) But don’t underestimate putting yourself out there and talking about what you love. Sometimes, it just finds a way.
Is there a Barry of Barry’s Bootcamp?
So you showed Barry what you did?
I did! It’s really cool, as they know what they do so well, but they didn’t have anyone who works for them at the time who knew design. So I think when they saw it, they were like, “Yeah, you, come help us. We need help with that.”
Is there anything that you look at now and you’re like, “I’m going to change that. I want to rebrand that”?
I do it all the time. I usually snap a photo. If I’m walking around and see something, I’ll be like, “That looks bad.” I joked to my session [at Adobe Max] that in New York there were these flyers all around Manhattan that were advertising to teach you Photoshop, but it wasn’t designed well. I was like, “Ugh.” I almost wanted to go home and redesign it because it bugged me.
Is there any example of a company that you think does branding really well?
Here’s a controversial one: the new Paris Olympics logo. Everyone’s come out and said they hate it, and I don’t. It looks very French to me, and it looks like it’s celebrating femininity, which I think is the right time for us to be doing that. So I’ll be the one designer that goes on record and say that I like it.
It didn’t really stick with me, but what did stick with me was this designer’s rendition of the Tokyo Olympics logo. It went viral, but it wasn’t even the official logo.
I love that logo, it’s really good. But with both those examples, regardless of whether it’s real or not, I can’t even imagine the pressure a designer would be under to brand the Olympics. It has so much baggage. That’s a hard challenge.
What’s your favorite project you’ve worked on at Taco Bell, like a product, or maybe an experience like The Bell Palm Springs Hotel, or the Demolition Man activation at Comic-Con?
I love that you brought up The Bell Hotel and Demolition Man because in both instances, it’s an immersive experience. It’s not just about designing something like, “Here’s a pretty package” or “Here’s a pretty logo.” It’s about how an overall environment makes you feel. So you’re designing at the hotel wallpaper and “Do not disturb” hanging plaques and things that people live and interact with. And in Demolition Man, we got to do that for a restaurant that didn’t exist, that’s in the future in 2032. So you get to springboard off this great imagination and come up with really interesting things that I feel delight people in new ways that we haven’t done before. That’s the stuff that gets me excited because we are bringing the brand to people in different ways, and you don’t get bored with that. Both of those are my favorites because it’s like tailoring and designing every aspect of it.
My friend was at the Demolition Man activation and she said somebody proposed there.
Yeah, that’s amazing. At The Bell hotel, there was a couple that was going on their honeymoon to Bora Bora. And they got reservations to the hotel, so they canceled their honeymoon.
It was very exclusive! I wanted to go.
(laughing) I couldn’t even get an invite!