Chipotle might be a fast-food chain with more than 730 restaurants, but its communications team uses tactics traditionally associated with fine dining establishments. That means cultivating local restaurant reviewers and media outlets, holding fundraisers to support local farmers, and running other local store marketing efforts that connect the restaurant to the community.
PR director Chris Arnold says Chipotle does some advertising in local outlets, but that it mainly aims to get customers to try its food through word of mouth.
"The whole word-of-mouth component is stimulated by the local store marketing," Arnold says. "That, and we believe that people donÕt find the best restaurants by watching TV ads, but by referrals from friends and reading restaurant reviews."
Helping support that interest by customers and the community is a business philosophy that Chipotle calls "Food with Integrity," which includes the use of natural, organic, and local ingredients as much as possible, as well as designing and building energy-efficient buildings.
Such behavior might be increasingly ˆ la mode for big businesses these days, but Arnold notes that the company, founded in 1993 in Denver, has always increasingly employed these values, even before it was popular.
"There's a big rush to 'green' initiatives in corporate America, and we started doing some of these things eight years ago," Arnold says. "I wish we could say we had some great premonition that in 10 years people were going to want natural, organic, and local food, and that things like sustainable design and building would be top of mind, but that wasnÕt the case."
But Chipotle says it doesn't seek to use organic and local ingredients as much as possible simply for philosophical reasons. These types of ingredients help make the food taste better, Arnold says, which keeps customers coming to the restaurants, whether they know, or care, where the ingredients come from.
"There are... customers to whom that matters a lot, and that's why they go to Chipotle," Arnold says. "There are customers who donÕt know, and find out and think, 'One more reason to like Chipotle.' And then there are customers who donÕt know, and probably wouldn't care; they just come because the food is good."
Along with a corporate marketing and PR staff of 14 or 15 people in Denver, Chipotle employs about 40 people around the country to do local store marketing efforts. It also uses nine regional PR firms, as well as Edelman nationally, to do media outreach.
Chipotle's green initiatives help attract media interest, Arnold says, including daily newspapers around the US; gourmet magazines; and major weeklies, like Time and Newsweek.
"We really use this 'Food with Integrity's the platform for much of what we do with our media relations," rnold says. "e also look to talk about how our philosophy has influenced other areas of our business, [like] a commitment to building energy efficient buildings."
Dawn Doty, VP at Linhart PR, says her firm' work includes trying to tie in media outreach with local store marketing efforts, such as a recent fundraiser Linhart helped organize for a nonprofit community farm in Colorado Springs, CO, called Venetucci Farm. Media coverage of the event was good, plus it helped generate local goodwill for Chipotle.
"hat' an interesting way to connect with a key influencer group... that was... truly trying to support something that Chipotle is all about... supporting local farmers,"Doty says.
Convincing restaurant reviewers or attendees of fundraisers to try Chipotle is the best PR, Doty adds. "They discovered that it... helps to let people just discover great food. ItÕs better to eat great food than just talk about [it]."
At a glance
CEO: Steve Ells
Revenue: $1.1 billion in 2007
Marcomms budget: About 1.75% of revenue, or about $19 million in 2007
Key titles: NationÕs Restaurant News, Chain Leader, QSR Magazine
Jim Adams, executive director of mktg.; Chris Arnold, director of PR
Linhart PR, Wagstaff Worldwide, Suzuki and Chou, Margo Media, SPM Communications, 100 Monkeys, Melissa Libby & Associates, KNS Promotion, Lief & Karson, Edelman