Will A Strong Brand Story Save Chipotle?

When faced with a cri­sis that under­mines its core premise, can the fast casu­al leader derive redemp­tion from its brand sto­ry?

Lisa Lacy By Lisa Lacy. Join the discussion » 0 comments

Chipo­tle, which per­haps ush­ered in the “quick ser­vice” era as it rede­fined what was pos­si­ble with fast food, is one brand with a strong sto­ry that has long embraced mes­sag­ing around “Food with Integri­ty.” Now faced with a cri­sis – one that under­mines its core premise – will Chipotle’s strong brand sto­ry be its sal­va­tion?

Chipotle’s sto­ry high­lights an obses­sion with three com­po­nents: fresh, high-qual­i­ty raw ingre­di­ents, clas­sic cook­ing meth­ods, and dis­tinc­tive atmos­pheres. And the result was an army of rabid fans and an increas­ing­ly com­pet­i­tive land­scape. How­ev­er, well-pub­li­cized E. coli and norovirus out­breaks have put the brand on the defen­sive and, for the first time, this dar­ling of the chain restau­rant com­mu­ni­ty has dis­played con­tri­tion instead of fur­ther mes­sag­ing meant to dis­tance itself from its fast food for­bears, such as The Scare­crow and Unneces-scary.

Anatomy Of A Response

In response to the out­breaks, Chipo­tle closed its 1900 loca­tions for four hours on Feb­ru­ary 8 for a com­pa­ny-wide meet­ing that dis­cussed what it has learned and so it could “[out­line] for [more than 50,000 employ­ees] the steps that have been tak­en out­side the restau­rants to make Chipo­tle ingre­di­ents safer than ever.” That includes a food safe­ty pro­gram with high-res­o­lu­tion DNA-based test­ing of ingre­di­ents, changes to food prep and han­dling prac­tices, enhanced inter­nal train­ing, and paid sick leave. Chipo­tle has also been rel­a­tive­ly trans­par­ent through­out, live tweet­ing the Feb­ru­ary 8 meet­ing with the hash­tag #ChipotleAll­Team, as well as adding details about its new food safe­ty pro­gram on its web­site, along with a let­ter from founder and co-CEO Steve Ells. The brand also attempt­ed to soft­en the restau­rant clo­sure blow by offer­ing free bur­ri­tos “if we messed up your lunch plans [on Feb­ru­ary 8].” And like Sub­way in the wake of its Jared Fogle cri­sis, time will tell if the out­breaks do any long-term dam­age to the Chipo­tle brand.

What About Chipotle’s Super Fans?

Chipotle’s his­toric appeal, how­ev­er, was not just bur­ri­tos. Like Toms Shoes and War­by Park­er, there’s an ele­ment of social good – in which ingre­di­ents “are sus­tain­ably grown and raised respon­si­bly with respect for the ani­mals, the land, and the farm­ers who pro­duce the food” – which has giv­en Chipo­tle a key com­pet­i­tive advan­tage to date and fueled brand love, includ­ing cus­tomers who have gone as far as incor­po­rat­ing Chipo­tle into their wed­dings. Will this remain the case if it turns out Food with Integri­ty had an aster­isk?

Other Brands Just Aren’t in the Same League

In the mean­time, com­peti­tors like Qdo­ba and Moe’s South­west Grill smelled blood and were quick to try to cap­i­tal­ize. How­ev­er, their eager­ness to dog pile is also per­haps a tes­ta­ment to Chipotle’s pow­er, which is intrin­si­cal­ly linked to its brand sto­ry.

Nei­ther Qdo­ba nor Moe’s can real­ly com­pete sto­ry-wise. To wit: Per Qdo­ba, a whol­ly owned Jack in the Box sub­sidiary, its brand is about “[liv­ing] a more fla­vor­ful life” in which “guests and team mem­bers alike are encour­aged to cel­e­brate indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, break down the walls of con­ven­tion, and bold­ly craft a meal that’s packed full of fla­vors.” For its part, Moe’s calls itself “a fun and engag­ing fast-casu­al restau­rant fran­chise serv­ing a wide vari­ety of fresh, made-to-order South­west fare in a wel­com­ing envi­ron­ment that rocks,” which includes “fun, pop-cul­ture inspired names” for menu items and a cul­ture that wel­comes all “except, of course, fugi­tives.”

Where Does This Leave Chipotle?

Reac­tion among rep­u­ta­tion and brand­ing experts is mixed. Online rep­u­ta­tion man­age­ment con­sul­tant Andy Beal said if the out­breaks had been iso­lat­ed inci­dents, Chipo­tle could have relied on its integri­ty sto­ry to see it through. “Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the out­breaks were wide­spread and per­sis­tent and now with the alleged sex­u­al dis­crim­i­na­tion, Chipotle’s brand sto­ry has been tar­nished,” Beal said. “To win back cus­tomers, Chipo­tle will have to adjust its sto­ry because con­tin­u­ing to focus on integri­ty is not going to con­vince cus­tomers that health and hygiene are top pri­or­i­ties. I sus­pect we’ll see a more hum­ble mes­sage from Chipo­tle over the com­ing months.” Digital/mobile cre­ative direc­tor and con­sul­tant Tom Eslinger, how­ev­er, said the heal­ing pow­er of a brand sto­ry depends on the con­tro­ver­sy in ques­tion and, in this case, “I think their pos­i­tive posi­tion on food, grow­ing and nat­ur­al foods would be an asset.” Fur­ther, Eslinger not­ed, “A brand that can make a point based on their val­ues is at least on the right track. If there were anti-gay slurs a la Chick-fil‑A at a cor­po­rate lev­el, it would be a dif­fer­ent sto­ry.” In addi­tion, Kris­ten Nozell, brand strate­gist at mar­ket­ing agency Red Peak Brand­ing, not­ed every brand faces bumps in the road, which can ulti­mate­ly be oppor­tu­ni­ties to strength­en sto­ries and com­mit­ments in the eyes of con­sumers. “Even in the midst of this cri­sis, Chipo­tle is get­ting some cred­it for address­ing the issue quick­ly and direct­ly and redou­bling its efforts to live up to its brand promise,” she added. Jamie Rodriguez, part­ner at dig­i­tal cre­ative adver­tis­ing agency Tilt­ed Chair Cre­ative, agrees a strong brand sto­ry is the company’s best mar­ket­ing asset, but he doesn’t see piv­ots in Chipotle’s future. “They’ve invest­ed over 20 years in defin­ing them­selves as inno­v­a­tive and con­sci­en­tious – two attrib­ut­es they will now rely heav­i­ly upon to help turn the ship around,” he said. “It will take time and action, but Chipo­tle will sur­vive, large­ly on the mer­its of the brand that it has worked so hard to cre­ate.” Fur­ther, Rodriguez not­ed the over­ar­ch­ing les­son for brands is to have a pur­pose, to live it and to stick to it. “Chipotle’s pur­pose is to change the way the world eats. One of my favorite Gand­hi quotes seems appro­pri­ate here: ‘Action express­es pri­or­i­ties,’” he said. “It’s real­ly a life quote, but it’s applic­a­ble to brand sto­ries as well. ‘Pri­or­i­ties’ are a brand’s pur­pose – its sto­ry. And the deci­sions those brands make express the authen­tic­i­ty of that purpose…Is Chipo­tle chang­ing the way the world eats? I would argue the answer is, ‘Yes,’ and so they tick all three of the afore­men­tioned brand sto­ry box­es: they’re unique, authen­tic and relat­able. A+ on sto­ry.”

Lisa Lacy

Written by Lisa Lacy

Lisa is a senior features writer for Inked. She also previously covered digital marketing for Incisive Media. Her background includes editorial positions at Dow Jones, the Financial Times, the Huffington Post, AOL, Amazon, Hearst, Martha Stewart Living and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

Inked is published by Linkdex, the SEO platform of choice for professional marketers.

Discover why brands and agencies choose Linkdex

  • Get started fast with easy onboarding & training
  • Import and connect data from other platforms
  • Scale with your business, websites and markets
  • Up-skill teams with training & accreditation
  • Build workflows with tasks, reporting and alerts

Get a free induction and experience of Linkdex.

Just fill out this form, and one of our team members will get in touch to arrange your own, personalized demo.