Chipotle Mexican Grill has tried very hard to differentiate itself from its perceived competitors by asserting their products are more wholesome. Their major proof points: they essentially oppose certain farming practices, as well as genetically modified foods (this position is more marketing than science), and their meats are free of antibiotics and hormones. In pushing this messaging they've angered many in the agriculture world, but they've also gained some allies and done well financially. The company has launched a new ad campaign to drive home these points, and they've decided to prioritize the digital and social channels their target market prefers. I think it has some strengths, and one really glaring strategic weakness.
First, Chipotle's new "Scarecrow" ad is simply gorgeous to look at. Moonbot Studios put together a haunting, engaging story with imagery and music that reminds you of Roald Dahl books. It focuses on an issue and resists the temptation many brands have to push the company name and logo - in fact, while you do see a familiar chipotle pepper in the video, you really don't see the brand name at all.
Second, Chipotle has produced a companion mobile game app for iTunes. It demonstrates that the company (and its agency) are thinking about their customer base - millennials. Like the video, the game also resists the temptation to push the brand and opts instead for some relatively soft messaging on their proof point issues.
This again demonstrates some knowledge of the target demographic - millennials are turned off by over-the-top corporate messaging. The game itself is pretty simple - you basically tilt the device to navigate the scarecrow past obstacles - but it's clever, offers casual fun, and isn't at all intrusive. I don't know what kind of metrics Chipotle has set up to determine success, but the video is approaching 5 million views and has gotten exceptional coverage.
But I noticed something in the ad. When our scarecrow hero decides to open his own food stand, something is rather conspicuous by its absence - meat. It's nowhere to be found, either at the scarecrow's house, in his kitchen, or even in the tacos he sells. It's not just antibiotic-free or hormone free - it's completely gone.
It's not in the game, either. Scarecrow is moving crates of "fresh vegetables," at least in the few minutes I tried the game.
It's obvious Chipotle gave this ad campaign a lot of thought. They very likely did opinion research before they started making the video. And their research apparently told them the best way to sell to millennials was to compare meat that was being puffed up with drugs or held captive in boxes with no meat at all. And yet Chipotle's top-selling items have beef, pork or chicken in them.
In this amazing ad campaign, with all the resources behind it and the earned media around it, Chipotle is distancing itself from its own product. Somewhere there are people in a PETA office high-fiving each other.
I find this even more confusing than the time Chipotle said maybe it's ok for their vendor farms to treat sick animals with antibiotics, and then quickly said actually it wasn't. (I care deeply about antibiotic resistance issues, but someone please tell me why it's ok to refuse to treat a sick animal.)
Overall, I think the folks at Chipotle (and Moonbot) should be very pleased with their campaign and the results thus far. Over the long term, however, any marketing strategy that wants consumers to forget that you sell something isn't sustainable.