“Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play.”
Sometimes, there’s a huge disconnect between perception and reality. Take, for example, the new animated short, “A Love Story,” created by Chipotle and released on the web and in movie theaters earlier this month.
Chipotle’s latest animated short is another indictment on the ills of the fast-food industry.
The film chronicles the adventures of Evie and Ivan—two budding entrepreneurs who preside over rival juice stands. In their efforts to top one another, Evie and Ivan amass bigger and bigger operations, turning their humble sidewalk stands into fast-food empires replete with cheap, processed food. Ultimately, the heroes fall in love, abandon their evil enterprises and open up a taco truck serving fresh food made from all-natural ingredients. The end.
It’s a lovely moral (and a very sweet film), but is it really the right message for Chipotle at this particular moment in time?
The former darling of the fast-food world is no doubt hoping that a little bit of Hollywood magic will help customers forget the rash of food-borne illnesses that have sickened hundreds of people across the country.
For months, the chain has been trying to lure customers back to its restaurants with food giveaways and other previously frowned-upon gimmicks, including loyalty programs and expanded menu items. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to be working.
This spring, Chipotle posted its first ever quarterly loss with its stock price down more than 40% since July 1, 2015.
How bad is it for Chipotle? Last week, the author of the “Jason Bourne” series tweeted: “The Chipotle thing is still ongoing. My editor ended up in urgent care after being deathly ill all night from eating at Chipotle’s.” In response to that single tweet, the restaurant’s stock price fell 3.5%.
Chipotle is still in deep crisis mode. The restaurant needs to prove that its food won’t kill you or at the very least make you wish you were dead. Fixing that problem and restoring public confidence is the only thing that matters. Organic, non-GMO, sustainable—no one cares about artisanal ingredients if they worry that the food itself is laced with E coli.
Rebuilding trust after a major crisis is not easy, but it can be done. Tylenol rebounded in the wake of the bottle-tampering case not by shutting its eyes and saying “not my fault” but by facing it head on—pulling all bottles of Tylenol from stores across the country and introducing new tamper-proof packaging, at great expense to the company.
For Chipotle, there is no quick fix. But there are some things the company can do to regain the public’s trust.
- Come Clean. Chipotle needs to be completely forthright in how it communicates with the public, something it has not always done. In December, the restaurant’s lawyers described the CDC’s practice of providing ongoing updates about the outbreaks “misinformation.” The CDC slapped down that assessment, stating that it followed “the letter and spirit of federal law.” This is no time for playing coy. When it comes to matters of health and safety, business should go above and beyond, demonstrating transparency and a willingness to get to the bottom of a situation, even if it means taking your lumps. In the long run, the public will be more likely to give you a second chance.
- Change the Message. Chipotle has spent years honing a carefully crafted message focused on fresh, locally sourced ingredients. But the business is changing. That means the message will need to change, too. Chipotle has already begun shifting operations to mirror the big players it has long maligned. The company is centralizing some of the food preparation and will need to rethink its reliance on locally sourced ingredients given how difficult it is to maintain quality when dealing with hundreds of individual producers. Chipotle will need to take a good hard look at how it can adapt its core message for the future. With 2,000 restaurants, it’s not the scrappy upstart anymore—its message should reflect that.
- Promote It. Despite some visible missteps, Chipotle has also done several things right. The company has hired national experts to lead a food safety division at the chain. It’s also instituted companywide sick-pay (designed to prevent a repeat of the norovirus outbreak), as well as advanced testing and employee training. But sending out a bland press release doesn’t have the same oomph as a 4-minute animated short. Chipotle should put more resources into promoting what it’s doing to improve health and safety at its restaurants. A video about food safety may not be as sexy as a Pixar-like allegory about the evils of the fast-food industry, but it probably has a better chance of putting customers back in restaurants.
Change is hard. Chipotle has built an incredibly successful brand by hewing to a singular message. But the company is very different place from where it was when it was founded more than two decades ago. Life is all about reinvention. Imagine how awful the world would be if we all stuck to the same script we wrote in high school. Brands are no different—messages need to change with the times.