Chipotle serves up a masterclass in digital marketing; Fast-food chain’s video captures imaginations

September 19, 2013 6:21 pm

Chipotle serves up a masterclass in digital marketing

By Emily Steel

Fast-food chain Chipotle Mexican Grill is redefining how to market to consumers in the commercial-zapping, constantly distracted digital age with its latest viral campaign that attacks the processed food industry. “The Scarecrow”, a three-minute animated video, follows a worker at Crow Foods Incorporated, a dystopian factory that purports to feed the world. The scarecrow, who stands as a symbol of the protector of food, quickly learns that the food processed in the plant is anything but real. Set to a haunting Fiona Apple version of “Pure Imagination”, a song from the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the scarecrow discovers a conveyor belt churning out “100 per cent beef-ish” meat. Chickens, advertised as “natural”, are pumped full of a neon green liquid. The mood lifts when the scarecrow returns to his home on a farm, picks a red pepper – the Chipotle logo – and starts preparing his own fresh food.

The video, which includes a companion mobile game, only makes subtle references to the Chipotle brand. Yet it is an extension of the company’s longstanding “Food with Integrity” initiative to serve fresh food from sustainable farms that respect animals. In 2006 McDonald’s disposed of its 65 per cent stake in Chipotle, which in recent years has been on a mission to define itself as a safe, healthy alternative to other fast-food outlets.

In 2011 Chipotle made waves with its “Back to the Start” animated video set to Willie Nelson singing Coldplay’s “The Scientist”, which told the life of a farmer who converted his family farm into an industrial animal factory then returned to a more sustainable system.

Branding experts say the campaign could leave Chipotle vulnerable to attack. “This lays down the gauntlet,” says Dean Crutchfield, an independent branding consultant. “It had better be true, otherwise it would really blow up in their face.”

Yet it proves that in an age when consumers are inundated with marketing, creative, provocative and compelling stories are the messages that resonate.

“Chipotle really has an authentic message. A lot of marketers are scared to say something,” says Jesse Coulter, co-chief creative officer at CAA Marketing, the agency behind Chipotle’s campaign.

Within a week of appearing online, the video had attracted more than 5.6m views, 96,000 Facebook likes, 11,000 tweets and 8,000 comments, according to Visible Measures, an online measurement firm. The companion mobile game, which lets players explore the dystopian world, has been downloaded more than 300,000 times.

Chipotle did not buy any ads to promote the video but rather relied on the message spreading across social media, particularly among its target audience of “millennials”, or people about 18 to 33 years old. Study after marketing study shows that people are more likely to pay attention to a message if it is coming from a friend, rather than straight from the marketer themselves.

The campaign comes as brands increasingly latch on to larger social causes in efforts to unlock emotional stories that are more engaging than traditional ad campaigns. Dove pioneered the strategy with its nearly decade-old “Campaign for Real Beauty” that makes little mention of its soaps and lotions but rather attempts to convince women that they are more beautiful than they think.

“When you move away to say why you do things and not just what you do, you open up the opportunity to unlock the power of a story,” says Allen Adamson, managing director of Landor Associates, a branding firm owned by WPP. “Stories that touch on fears and concerns tend to explode faster than stories about happy endings.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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