Chipotle B2B Marketing News

What marketers can learn from Chipotle’s 'tone-deaf' response to its E. coli outbreak


By Minda Smiley | Reporter

December 7, 2015 | 4 min read

Mexican fast-casual chain Chipotle is making moves to regain customer trust after dozens of people have fallen ill over the past few months due to an E. coli outbreak connected to the Denver-based company.

Last week, the chain said that it expects its same-store sales - ones that have been open at least 13 months - to fall 8-11 per cent this quarter because of the outbreak. According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 47 of the 52 people infected so far have reported that they ate at a Chipotle during the week before they began to feel ill.

The Drum spoke with Aaron Kwittken, CEO and chairman of communications agency Kwittken, to get his thoughts on how the chain has handled the ongoing situation so far and what it can do moving forward to salvage the Chipotle brand.

“I have very mixed feelings about Chipotle because as a leader in the well-sourced food movement, I think they’ve done a phenomenal job of educating people about better understanding where your food comes from and the importance of natural ingredients,” he said.

Yet for a brand that prides itself on offering “food with integrity” that “sources from farms rather than factories” and invests in quality ingredients, Kwittken said he found it both “irresponsible and a little baffling” that the chain waited so long to acknowledge the problem.

“For a very long time, up until maybe about a week and a half ago, they didn’t even mention it on their website,” he said. “Right around Halloween, when it initially broke, they were still promoting their ‘Boorito’ in their tweets. And I just think that’s really tone-deaf. It was a big black eye for them.”

The company now has a dedicated ‘Food Safety’ hub on its site where it is detailing which locations have been affected and what it is doing to ensure that its offerings are safe to eat in the future. According to the company, it is expanding the testing of its key ingredients, working with two renowned scientists, and is examining its foods safety procedures.

Kwittken said he thinks Chipotle will be able to come back from this as long as it can eventually identify the source of the E. coli and can show consumers what it plans to do going forward to reduce the possibility of further contamination.

Since the chain has long distinguished itself in the fast-casual space as a provider of higher-quality, healthier ingredients, Kwittken said marketers can learn from the recent outbreak that capitalizing on one particular brand element can come back to bite you, as in the case of Chipotle.

“You shouldn’t overemphasize one brand attribute, especially when it comes to health and safety, because you’re setting yourself up to fail. There needs to be greater equilibrium around what makes you as a brand unique.”

Because food safety is never 100 per cent guaranteed, Kwittken advised that Chipotle focus more on educating consumers around who the chain’s suppliers are and what sorts of processes or resources it has in place to help reduce the problem of food contamination.

“The truth is that they probably need to take a leadership stance on educating the public around contamination and need to be more transparent than ever before,” he said.

In the meantime, he said it might be wise for the brand to invest in media and communicate to consumers in an open-letter type style that the brand cares, is concerned, and is committed to making its food safer.

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