I have to admit: I like eating at Chipotle. I like the food there as well as the idea that I’m eating in a place committed to the concept of “food with integrity,” or “serving the very best sustainably raised food possible with an eye to great taste, great nutrition and great value.”
This is probably the reason I liked The Scarecrow, Chipotle’s latest marketing effort, which includes a YouTube video clip and a game app. After all, how can you not love such a beautiful work of art presenting a strong anti-industrial food production message?
Well, apparently you can. While some think the video is really great, “both on a musical and an animation level,” others questioned the authenticity of the message coming from a chain of over 1,500 restaurants. Funny or Die even came up with a video parody, titled “Honest Scarecrow,” highlighting some of the critiques of the ad’s narrative.
This debate got me thinking – while Chipotle’s campaign obviously tries to present a “disrupt and delight” approach, where the unsustainable status-quo is disrupted in a way that offers consumers delightful solutions, it’s not clear if the result is indeed “disrupt and delight” or “disrupt and dislike.” So which one is it?
At the heart of this question is the video clip, watched already by almost 6.5 million people. The film, as Chipotle explains, is set in a dystopian fantasy world where all food production is controlled by fictional industrial giant Crow Foods. In this world, scarecrows are working for the crows, helping them maintain their unsustainable processed food system. When the film’s hero, the scarecrow returns to his little farm after a day of hard and unpleasant work for the giant corporation, he’s quite depressed, but after picking a red pepper, he goes on to harvest more vegetables and travels to the city, where he opens a burrito stand that seems to become an instant success. Above the stand we see a banner saying “Cultivate a Better World.” The end.
What makes this short film so powerful is not only the storyline and the beautiful animation, but also its soundtrack, featuring Fiona Apple singing “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Apple’s cover plays with the viewers’ emotions, leading them all the way from deep depression to pure joy.
While there’s no doubt the ad is impressive and beautiful, it irritated some viewers and not exactly for the reasons Chipotle had in mind (the downsides of consuming industrial processed food). First, there was this notion that Chipotle has adopted here an activist point of view, which some think is a bit hypocritical given that this is a large restaurant chain.
Second, there were also complaints about the fact that when the scarecrow opens his burrito stand and prepares what looks like a yummy burrito, he uses only fresh produce and no meat. Some critics think this is somewhat misleading given that this stand is supposed to symbolize the alternative Chipotle offers and most of the burritos it sells have meat in them. “This ad is like asking you to eat the cast of ‘Toy Story.’ This is like Bambi, except that it’s somehow an ad for a restaurant where Bambi’s mother is on the menu,” Alexandra Petri wrote on the Washington Post.
And third, while Chipotle explained that the ad and the game were created “as an entertaining and engaging way to help people better understand the difference between processed food and the real thing,” some bloggers raised questions about the merits of this claim. They reminded readers of issues that came up not too long ago, including what looked like an indecisive policy on using meat from animals treated with antibiotics (see here and here), or the fact that only few of their ingredients are locally-sourced.
For me, the most important issue here is transparency. Chipotle is definitely entitled to describe itself as a disruptive force in the fast food industry, but if it wants to convince people that its offerings are delightful and better, it needs to establish these relationships through trust. In other words, it needs to be transparent to the degree that people who watch this film won’t have any problem finding information on Chipotle’s website that will help reassure them that this company is what it claims to be.
Yet, this doesn’t seem to be the case yet. It starts with the fact that Chipotle sets up its own standards and there is no third-party entity that verifies them. This is, in and of itself, not that uncommon, but unlike many other companies that do it, Chipotle doesn’t have an annual report with detailed information on its policies and progress, not to mention a third-party verified report, which is becoming more common these days.
What the company does have is a website with very limited information on its policies. For example, under “food with integrity” you can find a sub-menu with the company’s policies on pork, beef, dairy cattle and chicken. Yet, when you go to “Beef,” you read that “when we started purchasing naturally raised beef in 1999 we could hardly find any suppliers that met our standards…Today, thanks to increased demand, we source 100% of our beef from ranches that meet or exceed our naturally raised standards.” But what are these standards exactly? Well, no mention of that.
If you think such a request for more detailed information on the website isn’t reasonable, just ask Chipotle. “At Chipotle, telling the story of our food has always been important. We want our customers to know exactly what they are eating. For us, this is real transparency,” the company wrote in one its press releases.
It looks like while Chipotle has been putting more effort into the creative side of telling its story, it has somewhat neglected the descriptive part of it. It’s time for Chipotle to use its skills in this direction or it will find out that instead of disrupt and delight it has created disrupt and dislike.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.