After nearly 20 years, Chipotle has embraced its core concept as a marketing message
"Integrity" is not exactly a word that rolls off the tongue. It's not typical marketingspeak, especially for food that is appreciated because it is fast and cheap. The word doesn't foster visions of good times or tasty, easy-to-eat meals.
But Chipotle Mexican Grill, the 17-year-old burrito fast-food chain, decided the time was right to wrap its marketing (like a big tortilla) around its core philosophy of supporting sustainable agriculture. The Denver-based chain of 1,000 restaurants focuses on fresh ingredients that are organic, "sustainably grown and naturally raised." Specifically, all the pork, 85 percent of the beef and about 80 percent of the chicken come from animals that are raised in a humane way, without antibiotics, and fed a vegetarian diet. About 40 to 50 percent of the chain's beans and cilantro are organic, and more than half of its cheese and sour cream come from pasture-raised milk. Much of its produce is locally grown.
The slogan "Food with Integrity" is intended to encompass all that. And in early July it became the rallying cry of Chipotle's latest marketing campaign. To make that philosophy seem edgy and unique, Chipotle used billboards, print ads, radio ads and a revamped Web site to mock and disdain traditional fast-food chains. It's an interesting move, since fast-food titan McDonald's was a major investor in the company from 1999 to 2006.
But that was then and this is business.
From Chipotle's viewpoint, consumers have finally become interested in the sustainability and locally grown message (even McDonald's has a new Web site about its locally sourced ingredients in Washington state). "Until now, interest in higher food ethics was something only for the elite," says Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. "Most of our customers didn't know of our practices and were not ready to be confronted with the issue of how their food got from the farm to the restaurant." But with coverage like the 2009 documentary Food, Inc. and Time magazine's August, 2009 cover story, "The Real Cost of Cheap Food," Arnold says, "the conversation has gone mainstream."
Consequently, the thrust of the new campaign is instructional, but with a playful and understated tone to keep it from being too preachy. "This new marketing approach will attract new customers and strengthen our bond with existing customers who don't know that 'Food with Integrity' is such an important part of our business. If nothing else, customers may learn that we care deeply about the food we serve," says Steve Ells, Chipotle founder and co-CEO.
The brand's core customers are students and professionals, ages 16-35, who are more affluent and educated than the average fast-food customer, says Arnold. The brand's new Web site gives customers the opportunity to go "under the foil" to learn more about the brand's thinking behind its sustainable farming philosophy. For instance, on the opening page is a photo of a pig in a straw bed with the headline: "What does naturally raised look like? It looks like this."
The site also provides practical information about locations and menus, as well as online ordering capabilities and an iPhone ordering app. About 200 pictures from users are posted on the site (compared to 600 on the brand's Facebook page) and the community events listed are mainly from last year. The new site has been attracting more than 30,000 visitors a day, says CMO Mark Crumpacker.
Offline ads speak to Chipotle's role as an industry rebel by calling out norms in fast-food advertising and promptly violating them. National radio spots deconstruct typical fast-food advertising - such as monosyllabic dialogue between two young "dudes" - and explain that "we skip conventions of fast-food radio because we skip conventions of fast food."
Unadorned billboards, running in large cities nationwide, feature long, conversational sentences about sustainable farming. For instance: "We think buying locally grown produce makes our burritos taste better (which is why you may be craving one now.)" Selected words are highlighted to form a short headline, such as "buy" "our" "burritos" "now."
Print ads are also copy-heavy and focus on the taste of the food with background details about the source of the ingredients.
A new packaging design, called "passionate ramblings," uses handwritten lettering and an irreverent, personal voice to talk about the origins of the ingredients. The new packaging also invites customers to submit their own Chipotle stories online, and may incorporate those into the packaging as well. For both the site and packaging, Chipotle worked with Francisco-based Sequence, which was founded by CMO Crumpacker. The billboards, radio and print ads were handled in-house.
On the social media front, the company expanded its Facebook page to include a promotion with its partner The Lunch Box, a nonprofit advocacy group that helps schools upgrade their lunches. Starting in late June, Chipotle promised to donate $100 to the Lunch Box organization for every 1,000 junk emails that people submitted to a dedicated microsite, firstname.lastname@example.org. Eradicating junk email "reinforced the point that we are against highly processed, low quality junk food," says Arnold. The email promotion was backed by blogger outreach and banner ads that ran on users' email pages. The initial goal was to reach a donation of $50,000 in two months, but the promo hit that number in less than a month. The company then doubled the goal to 1 million junk emails. It took only about a week for users to nail the second goal.
At the end of July, when the junk-mail promotion ended, the brand's Facebook page had 827,000 fans and 600 photos from fans.
The promotion was the latest sign of the platform's value to the brand, say Chipotle execs. "We find that if a customer puts a question on Facebook about our food or menu, often another customer will answer it as well as we can," says Arnold. Many of the comments ask when Chipotle is going to open an outlet in the user's town. Facebook has shown "there are definitely pockets of pent-up demand," Arnold says.
So far, the "Integrity" message seems to be getting through. To measure the effectiveness of the campaign, the company conducted research before it broke and then eight weeks after it began. The research has shown "meaningful increases in awareness of our [sustainable] ingredients in markets where our advertising is running," Ells told investors in late July.
Since the ads make their point by positioning Chipotle as the opposite of traditional fast-food brands, the more that McDonald's, Carl's Jr. or others advertise cheap burgers, the more the Chipotle stance is strengthened. But the company's actual rivals are not the big brands alluded to in the ads. Rather, the real competition comes from less traditional chains such as Baja Fresh, Qdoba Mexican Grill, which is owned by Jack in the Box, and even Subway. To date, Chipotle's use of naturally raised meat remains a unique selling point among these competitors, and the company hopes its long-term relationships with livestock suppliers will keep it ahead of the pack if the sustainable farming trend really catches on.
Already, shortages seem to be popping up as Chipotle expands and uses up the supply. The company told investors in late July that all of the chicken it served used to be naturally raised, but it could no longer get enough natural chicken to keep pace with demand.
So that means that farmers and food suppliers - as well as hungry young office workers - are an important target of the brand's "Food with Integrity" campaign. Which, you could say, is great news for pigs.