When Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol threw down the gauntlet on the future of the brand earlier this year, one thing was made abundantly clear: Chipotle, the invisible brand, was over. Chipotle, the purpose-driven lifestyle brand that drives national conversation, was moving in.
Chipotle has driven some national conversation since then, but not in the way that Niccol had in mind. The company temporarily closed an Ohio location due to reports of food illness, prompting exactly the type of headlines that Chipotle can’t afford while trying to execute a top-to-bottom turnaround plan. In early October, the company’s head of food safety announced plans to step down.
Despite the bad news, the company’s leadership team has been relentlessly executing on Niccol’s mandate to push the brand into relevancy. Over the past six months, Chipotle launched direct delivery through its app and website (powered by DoorDash), started aggressively rethinking its menu mix, and rolled out mobile pick-up stations in select restaurants. The company is currently testing a new loyalty program.
On the marketing front, the “For Real” marketing campaign that Chipotle launched in late September has produced a “noticeable lift in sales,” according to Niccol. “Marketing that drives culture, drives difference and drives purchase, combined with great operations, drives results,” he told analysts on the company’s third-quarter earnings call.
The Holiday Promotion
It’s not enough to simply run television and print advertising spots for the new campaign. Regional marketing teams were tasked with bringing the campaign to life in creative ways, and in Chipotle’s busiest location in Manhattan, well-known food sculpture artists Jim Victor and Marie Pelton were brought in to create a series of holiday windows using Chipotle’s 51 ingredients on its menu.
Victor and Pelton have previously sculpted food art for brands ranging from Subway to Nestlé to Organic Valley to Kraft Cheese, and currently hold the Guinness World Record for creating the largest butter sculpture in the world. For the first holiday window at Chipotle, the pair used 80 heads of romaine lettuce (an odd choice to represent Chipotle’s food integrity, given the current state of romaine) and about 20 pounds of tomatoes to construct an edible Christmas tree topped with an angel made out of tortillas, peppers, and onions.
“We are always looking to extend the national messaging and our national campaigns at the local levels, and we want to try to be as culturally relevant as possible,” said Rachel Williams, Chipotle’s northeast field marketing manager. “It’s something we’ve never done before, it’s a little bit showy, because we want to get this messaging in front of as many people as possible. We want an attention-grabber to get people to pay attention to what matters to us, and that’s the real food and the real ingredients. It’s kind of a fun window into that discussion.”
Between the giant Christmas tree made out of lettuce and a new line of salsa and guacamole-themed wrapping paper that the company launched for the holidays, the marketing is reminiscent of Taco Bell’s typical stunts. But the gimmicks could be what is needed to leave a lasting non-food-illness-related impression on Chipotle’s customers.
“The two biggest focus areas here in the very near term are the visibility of the Chipotle brand and purpose because I think we’re creating a new category with folks and changing food culture,” Niccol said previously on the company’s third-quarter earnings call. “When we’re much more visible with it, customers respond.”
Chipotle declined to disclose details around costs associated with the holiday window displays. When measuring the success of the initiative, Williams said that the team is focused on how much discussion is generated around the project versus sales generated at the store.
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