Chipotle's Premature Return to Brand Land

Owing to a personal circumstance, I’ve been thinking about the notion of corporate/brand redemption a bunch this week. Without warning, a financial-services company whose name rhymes with “grace” decided to terminate my accounts, then refused on multiple occasions to share with me the reason for this decision. Maybe the company has a legitimate grievance with me; more likely, it’s in possession of some inaccurate information and has decided that radicalizing a customer is easier than investigating the situation.

Am I frustrated and pissed off? I am. Is there anything that the company can do to make things right? At this point, no (though it’d sure be swell if someone tried). But does my experience matter to any of the millions of other customers who are writing checks, withdrawing cash and socking away money for retirement without incident? Of course not. I’m the outlier. Nobody, especially bank-whose-name-starts-with-the-same-phonetic-combination-as-“Cheeto,” cares.

It was thus with a small degree of self-awareness that I waited on line yesterday for a big honking burrito at Chipotle Mexican Grill. When Chipotle had its issues with food-borne illnesses during the past year, my immediate response was to find another purveyor of burritos. Once the company announced that the problem was resolved, I returned. I imagine my reaction might’ve been slightly different had the consumption of a Chipotle foodstuff resulted in an extended sabbatical in the bathroom, or worse.

(Hopefully this goes without saying, but for the record: Somebody getting massively sick as a result of Chipotle’s loosey-goosey food-handling > me having to find a new bank. My plight ain’t exactly telethon material.)

But judging by this week’s release of its first brand-consistently twee clip since before the health crisis, Chipotle clearly thinks it’s time for everyone to move on. Indeed, if there’s anything to take away from “A Love Story,” which debuted on Tuesday, it’s that Chipotle believes the focus should be on food megachains and their sins against nutrition. That’s the basic plot, just as it was for Chipotle’s last two (exceedingly well-done and creative) ventures into brand video, “The Scarecrow” and “Farmed and Dangerous.”

“A Love Story” far more resembles the former, both in appearance (animated) and tone (melancholy yet alarmist). In it, we’re introduced to Evie and young boy Ivan. She runs a lemonade stand on one side of the street, he operates an orange juice concern on the other. “Meet cute” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Ivan might be smitten, but he’s a competitive little mite. When he ups the ante by plastering signs for his business all over the neighborhood, Evie retaliates in kind. He tweaks his branding to include “fresh-squeezed”; she adds “handmade.” He upgrades his storefront; so does she. He goes the franchise route as Mr. Orange (complete with sure-I’d-try-that-after-four-beers offerings like Queso Pumped Shrimp Clusters); she does the same as Lemon Land (now serving Lemon Dogs).

Subtle, right? Chipotle isn’t quite sure it got the message across, however, so “Love Story” gives Evie and Ivan uh-oh epiphanies in the form of a sip of the drinks they now sell. What happened to the juice, man? You used to be about the juice! Etc. We venture with Evie into her corporate kitchen, where Preserve-o-Matics and Sparkle Taste Boosters work their chemical magic on Lemon Land’s wares. Evie is horrified, but when she attempts to slow the process she gets labeled as an intruder and expelled into a trash-laden alley.

Guess who she sees there? Yup, FDA commissioner/presumed granola aficionado Dr. Robert Califf. Ha – no, it’s Ivan, similarly dumped by his own monosodium-glutamated operation. They share a what-have-we-done? moment, during which their hands brush up against each other. Then they open a restaurant/food truck combo so fresh-minded as to make Whole Foods look like a purveyor of gas-station sushi by comparison. To put a tidy quadruple-knotted bow on the tale, “A Love Story” realizes its titular ambitions with a glimpse into the future: a shot of Evie and Ivan, married with child and dog.

Don’t get me wrong – “A Love Story” has charm to spare, a creative gloss that puts most any other brand video to shame and the year’s best soundtrack, courtesy of a Brittany Howard/Jim James cover of “I Want It That Way,” which was a great pop song in its original incarnation and is double-great now and I will fight you if you think otherwise. It just seems a bad time for Chipotle to announce, in essence, “Nope, nothing to see here!” and return to its pre-crisis branding, even if the video’s origin predates the food issues (which, per a story that just landed in my Twitter feed, may not entirely be a thing of the past).

If I were a victim of Chipotle’s original negligence, I’d be furious to see the brand yipping once anew about how we should all “cultivate a better world.” In the end, “A Love Story” may be adorable and it may remind us why we responded so strongly to the Chipotle brand in the first place. But its arrival is still too soon, by a good half-year.
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