What Happened To Chipotle: The Demise Of A Clever Communicator

Chipotle1When I was a marketing director for a fast-growing restaurant brand, I had a bad case of Chipotle envy.  Everything they did was smart.  The real estate, the restaurant décor, the portions, the quality, the menu board layout…you name it, I pretty much was a fan.  Then the communications tied it all together.  From the shirts the crew members wore to the cups to the shrewd use of OOH media, it had the “it” factor.  It was clever, it was fun and it built intrigue.  It made you want to be part of what they were doing, and definitely made you want to eat there.

They had personality—a trait that is terribly mishandled by so many brands.   On one side, you have snoozer brands who are entirely devoid of personality and just want to beat you over the head with their facts and “propositions.”  On the other, you have some brands with so much personality, attitude and eagerness to “make a statement” that they (oops!) forget to weave in whatever the hell it is they actually make/sell/offer.  Chipotle, however, got the combination right.

That was then.  This is now.  Fast-forward to today and they seem to have deliberately set the personality switch to zero.  It is as if they hired a freshly-minted MBA hellbent on pounding features and benefits at the expense of anything else that might engage the potential patron.

Take for example this spot.  The hero crew member is grilling up some chicken on the flat top and calls the resulting sizzle, “The soundtrack of Chipotle.”  A pandering off-camera inquisitor is intrigued.  He repeats, apparently for confirmation, “The soundtrack of Chipotle?”  She provides the confirmation and then explains how you know their food is fresh.  The interviewer is now really hooked by this witty repartee.  Impressed at her ability to work the grill and simultaneously gush about her employer’s virtues, he wants to make absolutely sure he is picking up what she’s throwing down (given how complex it is) so he asks, “Fresh is what you stand for?”  Even though nothing remotely humorous has occurred, she gives a little giggle and confirms, “Exactly.”

In another equally offensive spot, a crew member guzzles Kool-Aid while making guac (okay just kidding about the Kool-Aid part).  She gives a cock-and-bull story about this being the best guac around.  Meanwhile, millions of proprietors of independent Mexican restaurants from El Paso to Oceanside give their TV/mobile screens the finger in disbelief and disgust.  The formula is incredibly contrived; C-SPAN is thrilling compared to these feeble vignettes.

The sign-off in the form of an on-screen super is a final bit of a bromide: “The Difference Is Real.”  This is the most believable thing they impart to the viewer with dozens of eating options.  The difference is definitely an about-face from a clever brand to a massive chain with really bland communications.  Not only are the portions smaller, but apparently so is the creative brainpower.

Post-Script:  I do get that some fundamental things have changed since Chipotle’s early days.  For one, I understand product life cycle dynamics.  Second, I get that this brand was involved in some horrible food safety failures.  However, as exhibit ‘A’ in a rebuttal of both of those issues, I’d submit Jack In The Box, a brand which survived its own food safety tragedies in the early nineties only to bring back Jack, a personality that has launched a ton of new menu items and continues to drive sales.

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