How Chipotle Can Do Better With Their Marketing During This Crisis

Oh Chipotle, my favorite Mexican fast-food restaurant, what have you done?

In the news,

Don’t expect Chipotle Mexican Grill to regain its former golden burrito status any time soon. Recovery could take as long as a decade, and its carefully cultivated “halo” may never return, experts told CNBC. – – Chipotle Subpoened by Federal Grand Jury 

Say it isn’t so. Please!

I love Chipotle. I mean, really. Check out my very long history with them:

I lived close to their first restaurant in Denver. I would drive over (this is around 1994) and stand in line outside on the sidewalk, waiting my turn to order my burrito. Then, I’d step up to the first woman and say, “Por favor, un burrito.” And then, she’d ask me questions in Spanish and I’d answer in Spanish, on down the line, requesting exactly what I wanted: con pollo, con frijoles negros, con salsa, con crema y con guacamole.” Then, I’d take that delicious bundle, peel down the aluminum foil and stuff that thing in my mouth until it was gone. Perfection!

A very good friend became a Chipotle restaurant manager in the Denver area and my husband and I would attend all of the area openings and eat Chipotle — for free. Then, our friend moved to Kansas City and opened stores for them there! (He’s since moved on. Good thing, looks like).

Several years ago, we moved to the Oregon Coast. Loved it there, but no Chipotle! When we’d make the long three hour drive to Portland, just a couple of times a year, our first stop was always Chipotle on NE Weidler Street, near the Lloyd Center. Close to tears, I’d order and eat. Oh, thank God there was Chipotle in Portland! When we moved to Bend, OR, I begged them to open a store there. But they said we didn’t have the right demographics to open a store there. (I think they were wrong, but it may not matter anymore!)

Now, we’re back in Colorado and I live about three miles from a Chipotle.


I’m afraid I might get sick. Seriously.

Chipotle executives and health officials have yet to pinpoint the ingredient that caused its E. coli outbreaks.- – Chipotle Subpoened by Federal Grand Jury 

If you haven’t heard, Chipotle is struggling with several E. coli outbreaks and a norovirus outbreak. As a marketing professional, it’s a worthwhile exercise for me to examine what’s happening and how their marketing department appears to be handling the situation. It’s a great way for me to learn and to grow. Plus, as a fan, I have some opinions on the subject.

Chipotle’s Brand is At-Risk:

Chipotle's Marketing TroublesChipotle says that they source their food with integrity. Straight from their website you can read, “We care deeply about where our ingredients come from.” They go on to explain, “Every choice we make—about who we work with, what we serve, and what we stand for—affects the bigger picture: the health of the planet.” However, when their food causes E. coli and norovirus outbreaks, the consumer asks, Do you source your food responsibly?” And, if you do, where’s the E. coli coming from? And, what does that say, if anything, about sourcing our food so that there are no GMOs, so that we know who grew it, so that it’s grown without pesticides? Does it mean that sourcing our food responsibly could increase our risks for such outbreaks? From a branding perspective, these two elements – food with integrity and food causing outbreaks – do not match up. So, the consumer must ask, “Am I being lied to about where you get your food?” and/or “Is food grown without pesticides and GMOs putting me at risk for disease?”

Chipotle Apologized Too Late

Chipotle is doing a terrible job of managing the situation. When the first incidents were reported, Chipotle didn’t appear to address it, at all. Eleven restaurants in Seattle and Portland reported E. coli cases in October. Looking through their Tweets in October, there’s no acknowledgement of this. The first time they do say something, it’s November 9.

We’ve taken a number of steps to ensure our food is safe to eat in Oregon and Washington. Read more:

Chipotle did not publicly apologize at that time. And didn’t apologize until December, well after several cases had been reported. When founder Steve Ells finally said, “I’m sorry,” I felt it was too late. Chipotle was already losing support from many sides and when you take weeks to say you’re sorry, well, it appears to the public that you aren’t taking responsibility. I think he needed to step up to the microphone much sooner than he did. Any news agency would have covered his apology and explanations about what Chipotle is doing, but really, Chipotle was silent for several days, weeks. I think with today’s instant access to our customers, that was a mistake.

Chipotle Needs to Reassure Us of What They are Doing NOW

Finally, they can’t tell us how these outbreaks happened.  For most people, that’s a problem. Ells is staying on message, which his PR folks seems to think is the right thing to do: how he’s going to make Chipotle better and how they are going to use safety standards far above and beyond what’s expected today. That helps me — not at all.

You know what I want to know? What are you doing TODAY at my Chipotle restaurant to make sure I’m not going to get sick? I have an idea: publish every restaurant location on your website and its most recent food safety inspection score. I mean, yeah, I can look it up, but you’d be more transparent if you did it for me.

They do have a website page describing what they’ve done to date to “clean up” the situation. I have to admit, however, when I read that they’ve conducted over 2,500 tests for E. Coli, I think “Is that a lot? Is that of every store in the country?” I have another idea: how about putting together a video showing me what you’re doing. Show me a video of your food coming in from the farm, being loaded into the store, of it going straight to the coolers, and show me someone cooking, someone chopping, show me water and cleaning solutions and hand washing. Post it to your website, post it to social media. Talk about this. Talk about how important fixing this is to you. I recommend you do this because it’s completely within your branding to be transparent and to be honest. Saying nothing, or very little, is not who you are at all.

Or, maybe your marketing folks sold me something that wasn’t true all of these years.

Here’s an example of how Chipotle can do better with their marketing and pr efforts. This is an FAQ from their website:


A: We understand that this incident has created a lot of confusion, and in some cases, concern. We are putting into place an industry-leading food safety plan and we will be sharing progress with our customers as this program continues to be implemented. We hope that our renewed focus will encourage you to give us another chance.

Chipotle, you understand that there’s confusion and some concern? Are you kidding?Your fans aren’t confused. They’re smart; they know that across the country, over several months, people are getting sick when they eat at Chipotle. There’s no confusion on that point. Your fans, all of them, are concerned. You’re our favorite go-to burrito. Where do we go if you don’t get this fixed?  No. Here’s what you say:

We understand you’re concerned. We are, too. With every burrito we roll or bowl we fill, we’re working to cultivate a better world. And, to that end, we are diligently working to make our restaurant food safer. We are putting into place an industry-leading food safety plan and we will be sharing progress with our customers as this program continues to be implemented. Keep track of our progress by visiting our website regularly and by following us on Twitter. Finally, check your local restaurant inspection report and see that your Chipotle is in Good or Excellent condition. And stop in for a delicious, healthy meal.

maybe chipotle is doubting themselves

These few ideas are just off the top of my head. I don’t work there. I don’t know the inner hell that they must be going through. I can’t help but think that they are reticent to communicate and be proactive because they themselves are questioning their own brand, their own beliefs.  It’s the only reason I can think of as to why they aren’t doing a better job of communicating, of sharing information, of being transparent.  I read a segment of the Wall Street Journal yesterday that the Chipotle marketing department is silent because they are waiting for the CDC to call an end to the outbreak. I mean that seems reasonable, but then, that means they believe there might be more of them. And that’s disturbing. And, if you believe in what you’ve been doing all of these years, and what you’ve been selling, then you’d bravely continue to sell your product. Wouldn’t you? Unless, you’ve been selling something that isn’t really true all of these years.


I do, for whatever it’s worth, want to remind us: Other companies have survived E. coli crisis (Odwalla, for example). Maybe Chipotle ought to talk with them about how they got through that mess.


I did, finally, check my local food inspection report. My Chipotle was checked out October 2015 and they received a follow up inspection. I don’t think that’s great. “A follow-up inspection is an inspection that is conducted to check an establishment’s efforts to correct cited violations and to assure compliance with Colorado’s food safety regulations.” — Larimer County Website   So, until someone can prove to me that my local Chipotle restaurant is in good stead with my county’s health inspector, I will not eat their food.  And, I suffer. I miss their food. I do.

Lucky for me, we have Big City Burrito.

About katrinastarkweather

Your Marketing Partner: I worry over all the details related to marketing your business so you can focus on developing your services and/or products.

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