Chipotle is looking to take ownership of the spotlight it found itself in during the E coli outbreaks of 2015, channeling ad spend into primetime TV and e-commerce in a bid to enter the zeitgeist as a ‘lifestyle brand’.
By financial standards at least, Chipotle appears to have weathered its E coli storm – the scandal that wounded the brand’s reputation as a safe spot to eat as much as it sullied its consumers’ toilets.
Shares have recovered since the two-year downward spiral that began December 2015. The brand’s candid ownership of responsibility and subsequent turnaround of its hygiene practices, and the appointment of the innovation juggernaut Brian Niccol as chief executive in February 2018, were both key factors in its recovery.
Outbreaks of Chipotle-triggered food poisoning still occasionally hit the headlines, but the brand’s push for earned media with stories such as a new vegan menu and its college football Free Delivery Bowl appears to have eclipsed any lingering public hostility.
It’s all part of Niccol's strategy to bring Chipotle out from the shadows, explained Chris Brandt, the brand’s chief marketing officer.
Brandt, who joined the company two months after the chief executive, described his boss’ brand strategy as centering on visibility.
“[He] said this brand... was invisible, and we didn’t want to be invisible any longer,” Brandt explained. “We wanted to be more visible, more familiar and more culturally relevant. So we changed the media plan, we expanded it beyond what was in place before and we changed the composition of that media plan.”
Before Chipotle was unwillingly shafted into the spotlight, it was “heavily reliant” on the likes of localized coupons and buy-one-get-one-free promotions. Now it has centralized its marketing plan, Brandt said, in order to insert itself into “culturally relevant moments” and thus appear in front of a larger, more engaged audience.
This means TV has become more important to Chipotle than ever before. Working with MullenLowe Mediahub, the brand is carefully select media buys to drive reach through “the shows that people talk about” – namely big budget premieres and NFL games.
Brandt believes the trend for clean-living, the growing popularity of foodie culture and the cult-like brand love shown by its biggest fans will combine to knight Chipotle as the next “purpose-driven lifestyle brand”, on par with the likes of “Toms Shoes and Patagonia ... the type of brand that you want to wear as a badge”.
“Are we there yet? Probably not,” he admits. “But that’s where we want to go.”
Above-the-line spend is being complemented with a “very robust” digital and social strategy. The brand is continuing to invest in its e-commerce platform, which has significantly expanded the delivery scope of its physical outlets since launch in summer 2018. Third quarter sales from digital rose 48% year over year and now account for 11.2% of total purchase figures, a stat that's clearly pleasing shareholders.
It is also readying to officially launch the digital loyalty scheme it’s been piloting later this year. Brandt hopes the CRM program – one of its first forays into first-party data – will allow Chipotle to “better understand customers’ dining and eating habits".
Additionally, personal catering, a vertical Chipotle “hasn’t really talked about yet” in its comms, will also be key to the company’s digital marketing strategy “during the right time points of the year”, according to Brandt.
“I think our social media folks are doing a much better job at being more engaging and being in more culturally relevant things and places,” he added, citing a Snapchat and Instagram campaign with Giphy stickers and a partnership with video game de jour Fortnite as cases where experimentation in the cultural realm has paid off.
Throughout Brandt’s tenure, Chipotle has been quietly finessing a casual, light-hearted tone across its platforms, much like fast food rivals Burger King, KFC and Wendy’s. Yet the chief marketer is conscious of taking this swagger too far.
‘Behind the Foil’, the latest extension of Venables Bell's 'For Real' campaign, for instance, prioritizes reality over smart quips and roasts its fast food rivals with documentary direction from Errol Morris. The platform plainly looks to lay Chipotle’s fresh and transparent ingredients on the line, without a punchline.
“A lot of other [brands] are in the entertainment business," said Brandt. "I think we’re in the food business.
"The one thing we maybe wanted to change from some of the stuff Chipotle’s done recently is [to convey] a much more positive tone. We’re now not going to denigrate what others do.”