Coronavirus QSR Consumer Behaviour

How Chipotle’s ‘culture hunters’ are capturing fans

By Kyle OBrien, Editor

November 16, 2020 | 6 min read

Chipotle Mexican Grill’s recipe for success includes hijacking cultural moments, generously rewarding customer loyalty and even opening up its first ‘digital-only’ restaurant. But, according one of its top marketers’ Tressie Lieberman, the most important ingredient of all is empathy.


Chipotle's culture hunters are on the prowl for new ways to bring consumers together.

During a pandemic which has seen many restaurants struggle, Chipotle Mexican Grill has seen its digital sales more than triple, and the chain’s chief executive, Brian Niccol, stated that he thought digital sales could exceed $2.5bn this year, more than double last year’s total.

Considering, Chipotle doesn’t have a drive through like many of its quick service competitors, this makes the success of its digital activations and app all the more crucial. It’s even gone as far as to open its first ’digital kitchen’, last week, which is dedicated solely to delivery and pick-up.

To keep fans hungry for more, Chipotle built a multi-layered digital-first marketing platform hinging on social media, an effective app and an incentive program to grow its base. Tressie Lieberman, vice-president, digital and off-premise at Chipotle, shared the key elements for the chain’s digital successes during The Drum Digital Summit last week.

Lieberman leads a team focused on driving the behavior around ordering through the app and is also responsible for creating a community around Chipotle, which includes the Chipotle rewards program, as well as the company’s social channels, including TikTok, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

“It’s really about telling that story on a big stage, building the mass awareness of these new ordering channels, and the digital kitchen, and helping remove friction to get people to try it,” says Lieberman. “And the way we’ve done that is through creating campaigns that we also believe drive culture and get people talking about the brand.”

Unleashing Chipotle’s ‘culture hunters’

Building a hungry online fanbase starts with constantly listening to customers and empathizing with their needs. “We refer to our team as culture hunters. They’re out there understanding what’s happening in the world, what people are saying about our brand, and making sure that they’re extremely clear on what we stand for to come up with ideas that will resonate with our community,” says Lieberman.

When Chipotle saw people starting to quarantine it looked at how to connect with consumers. It started with free delivery then quickly added a way to bring people together online, called ‘Chipotle Together’, digital lunch parties where celebrities would join in on Zoom and Instagram Live and give away food.

This included Luke Bryan performing on Instagram Live and giving away Chipotle as well as having Colton Underwood, the Bachelor and huge fan of Chipotle, host Chipotle trivia live on Zoom. “It’s just a matter of getting out there and creating content and learning and getting better,” she says.

Early successes begat new ideas like having social influencer David Dobrik throw a prom afterparty like on Instagram and giving away burritos to first responders and healthcare heroes. “We really thought, we have this incredible platform as a brand. Let's use that for good and make a positive impact on people during a really challenging year,” says Lieberman.

That empathetic tactic has gained the chain legions of new fans, and for the Chipotle team, gaining those fans is about tapping into the things they love, beyond just fresh food. That includes special days like on Halloween where people dress up to get Chipotle discounts (this year done online through codes on TikTok), and ’Chi-vote-le’ efforts to drive election awareness (including t-shirts that had a scan code on the sleeve to help register voters).

“We’re constantly thinking about that connection of who we are as a brand,” says Lieberman. “What are we passionate about? What are consumers passionate about? And how do we start to connect those dots and tell big stories?”

Rewarding loyalty via Venmo

Chipotle knew building its Chipotle Rewards program would be key for keeping consumers engaged, but its database became even more crucial during the pandemic. The program has been in place for just over 18 months and Lieberman said part of its allure was the fact that it was debuted in an “unexpected way.”

“We actually launched the program in partnership with Venmo. The insight was that the only thing better than free money is free Chipotle. We created this microsite called Chipotle Reward Me where you could go in and enter your information. And we would actually pay you money in Venmo. So, we kind of took over the Venmo feed, talking about Chipotle rewards and thinking about Venmo on its own right as a social network,” she says.

That kickstarted the program, which has now reached 16 million members. Now that more people are coming to Chipotle through the app, it’s driven more people to become rewards members. “Driving delivery, creating culture, getting people their rewards program, we call it the digital flywheel and certainly you see the connection points at every part of the journey,” says Lieberman.

The company will “just continue to lean in there and try new things and hope to expand our reach,” Lieberman says. “I want more people talking about us, I want to have more fanatics. So, we’re going to keep kind of pushing the culture in everything we do.”

Watch Chipotle discuss “moving at the speed of culture“ as part of The Drum’s Digital Summit here.

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