Viral Woes: Restoring Customer Trust In Chipotle

By now you’ve likely heard about Chipotle’s reputation problem. A recent string of E. coli and norovirus outbreaks in Chipotle restaurants from Seattle to Boston are blanketing the news. In the past few months, these outbreaks have caused the fast-casual restaurant’s same-store sales and stock prices to plummet. 

It’s why Chipotle founder, chairman, and co-CEO Steve Ells has been forced into the spotlight, on a media apology tour that has included an appearance on NBC’s “Today Show”and a seven-paragraph mea culpa published in 61 newspapers across the U.S. 

But what seems to be declining more than Chipotle’s stock price is customers’ trust. If there’s one thing that the Chipotle saga has demonstrated, it’s that a brand’s reputation, and consumers’ perception of it, can change, and fast. It’s a hard truth that food companies face today when information travels at light speed. 

All the media scrutiny has, understandably, caused trust to decline even further. When we asked consumers in a 2015 global food study the primary ways they lose trust in food brands, media coverage and information from the internet were in the top five. In this case, the information has lit up social media, with people lamenting how their beloved brand has done them wrong.

With systems in place to ensure its food is indeed safe to eat, Chipotle’s actions so far demonstrate that it’s on the right track to win that trust back. Consumers have said food quality and safety are the top two ways food brands can increase trust. Chipotle’s new food safety measures include a central prep kitchen for foods like tomatoes and stricter inspection standards on its supply chain. 

However, these standards now mean some local suppliers will no longer be included in the Chipotle burrito assembly line. Recall that, until recently, Chipotle was the darling of fresh, local, sustainable ingredients. Customers loved it. Now it seems that more Big Food suppliers will make it into that assembly line — some of the very companies that Chipotle has purported to be against.

How will loyal customers react? Many agree with the foundation of Chipotle’s brand promise — supporting local farmers over Big Food — because it’s in line with their values. But now the restaurant has said it will essentially have to rely more on Big Food to keep customers safe. So, the question really becomes how does Chipotle change the conversation? 

“We do not believe there is anything less safe about eating that way,” Chipotle co-CEO Monty Moran said of his company’s commitment to serving organic, sustainable foods, “and we believe that what we need to do now is put that same innovation that we put toward food with integrity and that we put toward our very special people culture — we've got to put that same kind of innovation into food safety now.”  

Of course, this innovation won’t happen overnight. What Chipotle will have to do to spur it along, is work to understand on a more fundamental level how consumers are changing their food preferences, and why. Over the last 12 months, more than 40% of U.S. consumers say the way they select food has changed yet only 2% say they have more trust in the food they purchase. 

In light of Chipotle’s recent woes, now is the time to work more closely with customers — to understand their tastes, preferences, and mindset, and to innovate alongside them. Our research has shown that companies that truly “get” their customers outperform their competitors and are best positioned for long-term growth. By really understanding customers, food brands like Chipotle can stay ahead of the trends to stay relevant, align with customers’ values, and, critically, be ready to react with confidence if and when something goes wrong.

The road to rebuilding trust won’t be easy. Chipotle is up against its own values, its own narrative, and a consumer mindset that it has played into, perhaps even helped create.

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