How Chipotle’s ‘Food with Integrity’ Strategy Can Really Succeed

[Ed note: this article has been updated since it was published]

The following article is part of our lessons in sustainable business series by students at the Presidio Graduate School.

By Bettina Baylis


In 2010, Chipotle, under criticism for some of its sourcing policies, was looking for a way to maintain its growth rate and also strengthen their “food with integrity” values.

Chipotle Mexican Grill, founded in 1993 by CEO Steve Ells, is based on the idea that the quality of their ingredients matters. As they grew into a national chain, their core mission was refined and named “Food with Integrity,” and they increasingly became public champions of the benefits of eating sustainable food. Embracing this strategy created a competitive advantage and helped drive phenomenal growth; by December 2010, they had 1080 restaurants and $1.8 billion in sales.

While they had sometimes failed to deliver on their promised integrity, they had measurable successes. The percentage of food sourced from sustainable suppliers grew enough for them to claim by the end of 2010 that the majority of their meat was “naturally raised” (their term for animals raised without hormone injections and antibiotics). Forty percent of the beans they served in 2010 were organic, and all the cheese was from milk produced without rBHT. In 2010, at least 35 percent of one of produce items were sourced from smaller local farms (defined as within a 350 mile radius of the restaurant).

But meanwhile, the company’s reputation for having a responsible supply chain took some hits. Since 2006, Chipotle has been accused of lack of transparency on their “Food with Integrity” mission. Despite new environmental commitments, the company dragged it’s feet on signing on to an agreement in support the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an NGO founded by Florida tomato farmworkers, the company signed on October 4th, two days after a protest outside Chipotle’s headquarters.

Strategy and outcome

By 2010, Chipotle realized their reputation was at risk. In order to meet their growth targets, they needed to reconnect with their existing customers and attract new ones. They needed to find a way to rebuild consumer faith in their mission of ‘Food with Integrity.’

The strategy Chipotle decided to implement was to promote its increasingly green farm-to-table-to-consumer supply chain. It launched a multi-pronged initiative to “change the way people think about what they eat,” building on their original “Food with Integrity” vision. Their new 2011 “Cultivate a Better World” campaign focuses on connecting with consumers emotionally, and telling the story of why Chipotle sources sustainable foods, beginning with a fun consumer website and social media presence.

• Chipotle created the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation, a non-profit focused on three food issues: supporting family farms; increasing animal welfare and pasturing; and increasing nutrition and reducing obesity in children. To date, they have donated almost $1.5M to these causes. Donations include sales from in-store “Boorito” events (first begun on Halloween 2010), where customers who came dressed up in Family Farm-themed costumes on Halloween received a burrito for $2.

• Chipotle hired the Creative Artists Agency (CAA) to produce “Back to the Start,” an emotionally powerful animated short on the importance of raising pigs sustainably. It went viral on YouTube (viewed more than 6.8M times as of September 2012), and the campaign and film have won many awards, including for Best Integrated Campaign and Best Film for Branded Content at Cannes (June 2012). In addition, 60 cents of each download of the movie’s theme song, Coldplay’s “The Scientist” sung by Willie Nelson, is donated to the Cultivate Foundation.

• Chipotle organized the first “Cultivate” festival in Chicago to help build community in a target market, and to bring together “food, farmers, chefs, artisans, thought leaders and musicians” according to their website. There are similar festivals planned for 2012.

• Chipotle expanded their Farm Team invitation-only loyalty program. Customers build points not by purchasing food, but by playing games online that educate about food supply and production. The awards points are then redeemable for discounts in the restaurants.

Lessons learned

The ‘Cultivate a Better World’ integrated marketing campaign continues to be wildly successful. It creates strong awareness and connection with consumers, and reinforces Chipotle as a very public leader on important food issues. The downside of the campaign is that it can feel slick and packaged, especially once you notice how very few numbers are supplied to support their claims. This feeling increases as you hear more about Chipotle’s lack of transparency. One example is their policy of avoiding third party-verified standards. Chipotle is more likely to craft its own definitions and follow them without independent oversight. This leads to a credibility gap: one wonders if they are telling us a feel-good story, or the truth? After reading their 2011 annual report, it is hard not to wonder how often to they have had to substitute in conventionally-raised meat for their much promoted humanely raised, and whether they are vigilant in alerting their customers when they do?

Chipotle has potential to do so much good in the humane and sustainable food movements. They need to address their lack of transparency not only for their own strategic benefit, but also for the credibility of the movement itself. It is time for Chipotle to take the lead and start disclosing more clear and detailed information about their food and how it is sourced. They could use existing best practices, such as the Global Reporting Initiative, to guide them. With their ability to connect with consumers, they should find their credibility grow even stronger if they disclosed some of their failures along with their hard-earned successes.

2 responses

  1. I admire Chipotle as a company, their overall business and
    product is simple and profitable. The fact that they realized their brand and
    reputation was at risk early shows affective management. Rather than allowing
    the reputation to be tarnished they took action early, in a manner which is
    much different from other food chains. Their mission “food with integrity” is
    not only brilliant it also set them apart from their competition, another
    reason I believe they are growing rapidly. Being that our society is becoming
    more aware of the food they eat and concerned, Chipotle made the right choice
    in promoting more natural products. This marketing strategy shows they are more
    concerned with their consumers, that it’s not just about a profit but rather
    producing a product that is delicious and healthy. Personally Chipotle is the only fast food
    chain I will eat at primarily due to them using healthier and fresher
    resources. I am also a huge advocate for supporting small business which includes
    local farmers; I was actually unaware that Chipotle included that aspect apart
    of their corporate social responsibility. I believe their marketing campaign
    will take the corporation far mainly due to them recognizing how society is
    changing and they are changing with it.

  2. Definitely we could have a better world if all restaurants
    or food companies use this kind of methods. One of the most important thing
    about the Corporate Cause Promotion is that it can save million of people.
    Companies can help us to save people, who are in danger or have a lot of needs
    because the economy system does not help them. Every Day million of people die
    because they can not buy healthy food. Today it is more reachable to buy a
    hamburger than healthy food. And the worse part of this is that the farmers are
    also victims of this monopoly that Fast Food restaurants are responsible. All
    people can see what is going on behind the pretty faces that companies such as
    Mc Donald’s in the internet or watching documentaries like Food Inc. Chipotle
    are doing a great job for the humanity and today some companies are doing the
    same thing because they are looking that they can have benefits with this, such
    as advertising and good image.

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