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Free burritos won't solve Chipotle's E-coli crisis with 15% of fans on social saying they won't return

'How 'bout a Burrito?' asked one of Chipotle's recent poster campaigns, advertising the Mexican restaurant chain's offer of a free food coupon; a shrewd promotion designed to lure back customers back in light of an E.coli outbreak that has battered the brand. 

The fast-food chain is still reeling from the crisis, which saw its stock and sales plummet, but while the company claims the latter is in "recovery" it looks like it may take longer to win back the trust of its customers.

When 50 cases of E.coli where first traced back to the grill across eight states at the tail end of 2015, a wave of negative publicity followed with many former diners taking to social to voice their concern. Fresh data showing the sentiment around the brand since the outbreak has revealed that 15 per cent of fans on social have said they won't return to the diner. 

Supplied to The Drum by social analytics firm Crimson Hexagon, the data has been tracking social responses to the crisis since November, when Chipotle was forced to shutter 43 of its Pacific Northwest locations. 

Initially three per cent of those commenting said they "didn't care about the outbreak," while 19 per cent said they wouldn't eat at the chain again. 

 
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Just over a week later, when the restaurants re-opened for business the number of people expressing negative sentiment about going back to Chipotle had increased by 10 per cent to 29.  

Much of the posts across Twitter and Facebook were related to the source of the E.coli and the fact that the there was a seven-day turnaround between the brand closing shop and opening again. 

 
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Jumping forward to December, when Boston students who ate at one of the brand's franchises were hit by Norovirus, there were over 20,000 posts across social relating to the news, with the number of diners who said they'd be reluctant to go back rising to 35 per cent, something that dropped to 11 per cent a few weeks later. 

Following an investigation which was unable to ID the source of the contaminated food, almost a quarter of fans vowed never to return on social. 

 
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The company's sales dropped this month by over 26 per cent; actually an improvement from the 36.4 per cent they plunged in January.

Chipotle said it's sales recovery began the week of 8 February, when it offered people a chance to get coupons for free burritos on their mobile phones.

 
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After being criticised for it's "tone deaf" response to customer concerns, the Denver-based company revealed it had appointed a new PR firm to help it win back consumer confidence. Burson-Marsteller was appointed as its new PR agency of record to focus on its rebound.

However, the most recent data from 9 March (following on from the closure of a store in Massachusetts after an employee was diagnosed with Norovirus) shows that diners' concerns have yet to be assuaged. The number of people who said they'd decline a visit to Chipotle jumped back up to 15 per cent, with the news clocking up 12,423 mentions online. 

 
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The financial fallout of the outbreak could linger long into 2016, but the hardest part going forward for the brand will be juggling the fallout from the catastrophe.

As part of a series of changes designed to deal with this very issue, the brand announced that it's hired E.coli expert James Marsden as executive director of food safety, with chief executive, James Marsden,  pledging to make the chain the "safest restaurant to eat at.

Featured by The Drum