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Chipotle Hopes Laughter Is The Best Medicine For Food Poisoning

With a funny new ad campaign, the chain is walking a tricky tightrope: How does it talk about fresh ingredients without opening old wounds?

Chipotle Hopes Laughter Is The Best Medicine For Food Poisoning

Can Jeffrey Tambor persuade you once again that Chipotle’s food is made with integrity?

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That’s the goal of a new national marketing campaign from the Mexican-inspired food chain, which has been working to repair its image following a series of damaging food-borne illness outbreaks in late 2015. It’s Chipotle’s biggest ad campaign yet. And depending on how you count, it’s also its third or fourth major brand rehabilitation experiment in the year and a half since its food-safety incidents first emerged. That speaks to the sizable challenges Chipotle is still facing as it seeks to recover its once-roaring restaurant sales—all while moving the conversation around its brand away from food safety.

The new web and TV spots, rolled out Monday, feature comedians Jillian Bell, John Mulaney, and Sam Richardson, who are shown in separate ads entering a house-size burrito where Tambor’s voice instructs them to “be real” because, well, “everything is real” inside a Chipotle burrito. The comedians proceed to make comical confessions, and the ads each end with a new Chipotle motto, “As Real As It Gets,” an apparent reference to the company’s recent strides in removing artificial flavors and preservatives from its ingredients.

The implication, of course, is not only that Chipotle’s ingredients are real, but that they are realer than what’s on the menus of its rivals. As Chipotle has struggled to fix its reputation, fast-casual chains such as Panera have gone after the company’s ingredient-conscious consumers, to the frustration of Chipotle CEO Steve Ells, who recently questioned whether Panera is living up to its promises of serving “clean” food. Chipotle is also facing more competition from longtime giants of the industry. McDonald’s, for example, has started marketing the use of fresh beef in some of its burgers. (When I mentioned this to Ells once, he dramatically rolled his eyes.)

The new commercial spots join a number of similarly themed campaigns Chipotle has launched since 2016, including a beautiful animated short film called A Love Story to highlight its core, anti-Big-Food values; an ad campaign about how it treats its ingredients like royalty; and even an online game called “Spot the Imposter,” which lets players hunt for “industrial additives” that are “masquerading as real ingredients.” (The company also spent tens of millions of dollars in promotional offers and discounts to spur foot traffic in its stores.)


Related link: Chipotle Eats Itself

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If there’s one uniting through-line in these efforts, it’s that Chipotle wants to remind you why Chipotle’s food is fresh without reminding why you forgot it was in the first place. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk. Chipotle can’t make food safety the central point of its marketing, but it also knows that any initiative to tout its improvements or resell its brand will be viewed through the lens of its food-safety woes. “It’s a big marketing challenge,” Chipotle’s chief development officer, Mark Crumpacker, told me late last summer. “When you’re excited to go out to lunch, you’re not like, ‘Let’s go to the safest place!'”

Chipotle, instead, has initiated a significant number of changes to its food-safety program, but it has been more strategic about informing customers about them. “Our food safety is not something that I expect to drive lots of people into the restaurant, but I do think it might erase some people’s doubts and allow future marketing to be met with less objection,” Crumpacker said at the time.

Is Chipotle at the point yet where new efforts will be greeted with less cynicism? It’ll likely take another quarter before we’ll see if the campaign has an impact on sales. For now, Chipotle will have to depend on Jeffrey Tambor and company to convince shareholders that there’s always money in the burrito stand.

About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.

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