We anticipated a heart-tugging video from Chipotle this summer, but not quite this one. Surely, after the loss of nearly $12 billion in market capitalization from a series of food safety blunders, the anticipated video would be about taking responsibility for ones’ actions and taking measures to improve personally. Nope. It was instead centered on blasting competitors for doing exactly what Chipotle is doing with its newest message to the world.
At a time when Chipotle should be fixing its own failings and tending to the broken trust and loss of customers and shareholder value, they’ve cooked up a cartoon criticizing and condemning competitors, and then playfully packaged a rather dark message with a cheerful soundtrack and happy ending that at first blush seems as lovable as the characters are in the end. But what’s missing from this installment from Chipotle is a hero, and what’s hidden is a more sinister theme. Chipotle rattles sabers about the big guys, but in many ways it has itself become one.
The July 6, 2016 release of “A Love Story,” while certainly charming and entertaining on many levels, is another remarkably tone deaf – almost self-indulgent and “poor me” – messaging blunder put forth by Chipotle since it lost its footing less than a year ago. Chipotle has been tumbling down the mountain it climbed akin to a high-speed skier flailing down a steep snow covered slope – we all look on with shock and disbelief, empathetically pained by the disorienting bangs and whirls the skier is absorbing, knowing there’s little any of us can do but look on with our mouths ajar and hope everyone is okay once it’s over.
We’ve all seen the parade of headlines and know Chipotle is in crisis mode. The weight of it all sinks in a bit more though when combined.
In addition to accusations that Steve Ells stole intellectual property from Momofuku, and repeated food safety scandals (one after another for months), there’s the being sued for misleading investors over food safety, being sued for GMO claims, being sued over lavish executive compensation, being sued for sexual harassment and discrimination, the Better Burger trademark blunder, and meanwhile their CMO – one of the highest paid CMOs in all of corporate America – was ordering cocaine deliveries like the rest of us order pizza.
In just the last 24 hours they’ve put out a charming four minute cartoon chastising competitors (confusingly titled “A Love Story”), have been outed for using a proxy to pursue a better burger concept called TastyMade, and lost 3% of their stock value this morning with new rumors of making customers ill in Manhattan (a single Tweet was enough to do it).
With this, yet another critical commentary of Chipotle and its recent communications blunders, we don’t mean to condemn, rather to express deep concern for how the brand is being stewarded through this difficult time in the company’s history.
We’ve long admired the Chipotle brand, in particular the leadership of Steve Ells, and have advocated for them on many occasions. We’ve even likened Steve Ells to Henry Ford of the restaurant industry.
The Scarecrow was one of the best pieces of restaurant marketing that’s ever been produced, in our view. It worked on so many levels – not just the innovation. You could watch that just for the entertainment value, and also if you were an activist pushing for change in the food industry enjoy while taking away some of the deeper meaning that reflected the positive characteristics of the brand promise, the notion of “Food with Integrity,” and Chipotle’s role of pushing that agenda and its cause forward.
Chipotle has improved on the quality of the animation over previous iterations (with Back to the Start and The Scarecrow), but what’s different in a bad way is that there is no hero, no positive moral, and rather than using their well-honed skill at tugging heart-strings to get us to forgive their recent woes and failings, they hurl blame for what’s wrong with our food system at their competitors. Isn’t it the pot calling the kettle black to put out a months-in-the-making video that criticizes competitors for competing with each other in a video that criticizes your competitors?
In both of the previous animations, the story was centered on what Chipotle believes – and what we all believe – about the modern food system and how it could be better. The message was about something bigger than a company and the cold corporate pursuits of ever more productivity and profitability no matter the price. We all saw Chipotle in the hero of the previous stories and it endeared us ever more to the brand. We took Chipotle’s cause up as our own and cheerfully paid whatever price it needed to keep doing good and helping to change our global food system for the better.
In “A Love Story”, the message is about rivalry, jealousy, envy, raw and blind ambition, and nearly every frame for three minutes is filled with contemptuous counter-positioning of quick service restaurant (QSR) competitors (with some jabs at casual dining competitors sprinkled in). It’s painfully obvious which competitors are being called out: KFC, McDonald’s, Taco Bell (especially Taco Bell), and more. There are subtle references to pink slime and others using chipotle in new menu introductions (we get the ‘Spice it Up with New Spicy Orange…’ hints) and not so subtle references to QSR value menus, McDonald’s All Day Breakfast, Big Gulp, and even their QSR playgrounds. We also noticed the evil eye in the sky throughout the video (and wonder if the play on Apple’s 1984 commercial was as intentional as it is obvious throughout the video). Even Starbucks got worked in, it seems (the distinctively Starbucks-styled food cases around 2:11 behind the old QSR style food trays in that frame).
After the two characters have battled it out and wake up to realize they’ve built companies that horrify them, they are thrown out by evil pink slime sparkle dust snakes via a trash chute that looks to eat them alive and dump them in a dark, litter-filled alley. They brush themselves off and start something healthier and more honest.
This is what’s so confusing. Is Steve Ells perhaps considering resigning? Being thrown out of his own company? While that may sound far-fetched, some shareholders are calling for his head and it happened to Steve Jobs not too long after his 1984 commercial. Or is the implied meaning McDonald’s and Taco Bell should take away from this that they should resign, get together, and start a food truck business?
Chipotle is now far too large to play the “little guy” card. There are new up-and-coming fast casual 2.0 players that will win over fans much faster playing to the American desire to root for the underdog. So, does this mean that Steve Ells has woken up inside a company filled with unintended consequences and is now signaling a desire to start over with something small and new? Is this why the company appears to still be pursuing a new better burger concept even though it has tried repeatedly to downplay and dismiss questions about such a move while still in the throes of crisis that should be demanding full attention of executive leadership?
While the businesses grew throughout the video, so too did the investments in facilities and guest-facing operations (playgrounds, drive thrus, etc.). While we certainly don’t applaud use of antibiotics important to humans, artificial flavorings, and many of the other perversions of modern food production, we should recognize that these companies have been making positive steps in recent years to reduce the reliance of food additives and preservatives.
The others are trying. They’re certainly not moving fast enough, but the same could be said of Chipotle’s crisis communications and failed response to food safety breaches that resulted in customers bailing and billions of dollars in lost shareholder value.
Largely, the emphasis is that these competitors are doing everything they can with the menu, facilities, promotional efforts and so on, to steal customers back and forth from each other. Chipotle has done that for years on end. The first loss it ever posted was earlier this year (Q1 2016). They’ve got to steal customers back now, so they’re putting out a video condemning their competitors for competing with one another, to try to win back lost customers?
In a way, this is Chipotle getting a taste of its own medicine. The loss of customers in the animation that the characters fight to grab back is a feeling and concern that Chipotle executives have had to confront – quite painfully – starting in the fourth quarter of 2015 when sales dropped 30%. For all of its struggles and inherent flaws, not even McDonald’s lost that much.
When we showed Back to the Start and The Scarecrow to other foodservice industry leaders, they asked themselves what they could be doing better to contribute to the industry and our food system more meaningfully. Sure, there are plenty of copycat companies out there that have tried to mimic Chipotle – from variations of their Food with Integrity tagline (“yeah, yeah, let’s call ours Food with More Integrity”) to the blatant attempts to capitalize on Chipotle by putting chipotle in and on everything (Chipotle sued at least one of them for flattering them in this way).
We all viewed Chipotle as the Scarecrow – the caring character we all rooted for, believe in, and wanted to see win. Recent behaviors and messaging (saying one thing in public about the better burger concept but apparently doing something else privately) liken Chipotle more to the crow than that kind farmer family or that sensitive and sensible scarecrow we came to love.
This kind of messaging has the potential to further drive the rift between a public that wants to trust and a corporate America that seemingly gives them little reason to. Chipotle is less solving a problem than poking and provoking its competitors. The timing of such a move and message is baffling given the demands of fixing the brands’ own failings.
Chipotle has failed, painfully and publicly, and needs to focus on getting those things fixed rather than slinging derogatory and damning innuendo at the competitors that have picked up customers Chipotle has scared off.
Repeated failures of a food safety program for any restaurant is among the most egregious shortcomings and breaches of trust. Restaurant management bears ultimate responsibility for ensuring the safety of its patrons – that means through every link in its supply chain and every sequence of its SOP and with all of the believability of a company that has built its brand on the promise of trust and integrity.
They have, in some ways, failed on their integrity – but have certainly failed on the promise of keeping us all safe. And that certainly means guests and food safety, but also the safety of shareholders’ investments.
Chipotle has grown to a point where they have a very powerful platform to speak from. Others throughout the industry, not just in the United States but around the world, follow the brand and have looked to Chipotle as a champion for the belief that the food system could be better, and that it has become perverted over the decades in the pursuit of profits and productivity.
That’s really the notion of a brand: a promise around a shared set of beliefs that others are both attracted by and want to enroll in helping advance. But one of the concerns is that when the champion stumbles, and its first reaction is to criticize its competitors, rather than accept responsibility for its own actions and performance, it runs the risk that it can convert its followers from loyal and invested believers to skeptics, and can lose the hearts and minds of those who cared most.
It would have been possible to still maintain this not-marketing-but-really-marketing kind of marketing while also furthering and reinforcing the brand story more effectively. Yeah, a story about love seems safe enough. We concede; who doesn’t love a good love story? However, in this case, customers and shareholders would probably most love to know that it’s really safe to eat at Chipotle again; and that the company cares and loves food safety more than lampooning competitors.
Chipotle is starting to seem like the corporate giants it has railed against for so long. Our advice is to focus on advancing the food safety and supply systems not only within their company, but leading the industry responsibly, authentically, and with the kind of integrity the company wants to be known for.