How Chipotle ignored the rules of brand comebacks

For one, it didn't fire all of its agencies.

(L-R) Paul Birks-Hay and Chris Brandt
(L-R) Paul Birks-Hay and Chris Brandt

NEW YORK: Chipotle Mexican Grill revived itself after its E. coli crisis by basically ignoring the commonly held rules for brand comebacks, according to its CMO Chris Brandt. 

Brandt spoke alongside Paul Birks-Hay, president of Chipotle’s ad shop Venables Bell & Partners, on an Advertising Week panel about how they set the stage for Chipotle’s second act after a food-safety crisis and increased competition. 

There are a few basic rules for rebuilding a brand that isn’t doing well, such as cleaning house by firing your creative and marketing agencies and then returning to a strategy and playbook that you know works, Brandt said.

However, coming in as a new CMO last year, Brandt decided to ignore those rules and instead chose to maintain the relationship Chipotle started with Venables. 

Joining Chipotle as a brand new employee, Brandt noted that it was important for him to realize that "among the partners and people you have, there are probably some really good ones who know more about getting things done than you do."

He joined following several troublesome years at the Mexican food chain, which temporarily closed dozens of locations around the country in response to an E. coli outbreak in late 2015. Federal officials declared the outbreak over in February 2016, but not before the company's reputation and share price took a hit. Chipotle saw a 13% drop in sales for 2016 — its first annual decline since it went public more than a decade ago. The brand addressed the matter through visible changes to food safety systems and an emphasis on transparency.

After sticking with Venables, the next move was deciding how to position Chipotle. Both Brandt and Birks-Hay said they chose not to use marketing approaches that worked for the company in the past.

"A lot of the time, you’re tempted to go back to the start, to what you know works," Birks-Hay said. "Things had gone wrong and so the natural thing to do is roll out the playbook you have personally or that the company has used, but that is something we avoided."

He added that the brand decided to talk away from its old playbook because in the past it had been a "niche brand." Now, Chipotle is mainstream so it had to be seen as successful, explained Birks-Hay.

"We also had to look away from the past tone," he said. "Traditionally, we had done a lot of marketing about sourcing, but in the years since then everyone had caught up to that and were using the same words."

The new approach? Marketing that recognized the core values of the company. 

"What we had was the product itself," Birks-Hay said. "Chipotle is craveable food that you can feel good about eating. How rare is that? It creates a big emotional bond with Chipotle fans and that was an incredible asset."

Chipotle has been on the mend and expects high-single-digit comparable restaurant sales growth for the year, up from expectations, according to The Wall Street Journal. The company said it will open 140 to 155 new restaurants this year.

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