9 Ways The Chipotle Marketing Strategy Kept It Real (And Won)

Jon Tan
Jon Tan
March 5, 2017
2 min read
9 Ways The Chipotle Marketing Strategy Kept It Real (And Won)

In this article

Chipotle is a company focused on non-traditional advertising, choosing to channel its marketing effort into creating positive word-of-mouth.

With only 2% of revenue spent on advertising, the company has come up with very impressive ways of doing this over the years.

These marketing efforts have been working.

In 2014, Chipotle reported store sales were up by 13.4% and that their revenue was up by 24.4%, hitting an amazing $904,200,000.

That's nine-hundred and four million dollars of burrito money!

The company largely utilises "Cause Marketing", promoting the message of sustainable food and responsible agricultural practices rather than its own products. Chipotle identified very early on that this is an issue its customers care deeply about and has been rolling with the strategy ever since.

We've gathered 9 of Chipotle's best word-of-mouth strategies and tactics in this article for your reference, let's get rolling!

1. Chipotle Gets Customers To Express Their Love For Burritos Through Haikus

In early 2015, Chipotle ran a contest on Twitter and Facebook, offering a Chipotle dinner for two for the 20 best (decided by retweets, likes and shares) burrito themed Haikus customers could come up with.

While many contests revolving around consumer-generated content tend to go south (read: Internet Trolls), this contest actually went pretty well. Here's a creative entry from Katrina Childs -

The perfect present
Free Chipotle Burritos
My hubby loves you

Why People Talked About It:

Writing a haiku is relatively simple - all you need is the ability to count to 7 and a basic command of English. The low barrier of entry ensured it would be a simple task for people to participate in the contest.

Once they did, word of the contest spread for these reasons:

  1. People tend to take great pride in their creative efforts and would be eager to share their poems.
  2. The contest metrics (retweets, likes, and shares) encouraged contestants to canvas for the support of their friends.
  3. Many haikus were absolutely hilarious. They each also take a couple of seconds to read. Low time commitment + high entertainment value = shares. Memes are an example of this principle at work.

2. Chipotle Produces A Web Series Good Enough For Cinemas

Chipotle is absolutely killing it with its branded content and the company knows it.

Tim Piper, the director behind highly acclaimed branded content campaigns for Dove and Post Shredded Wheat, was hired to develop a comedic web video series called "Farmed And Dangerous".

The series satirically pokes fun at the ugly face of the agricultural industry. It tells the story of fictional agricultural giant Animoil and its plans to revolutionize the industry through the use of PetroPellet, a petroleum-based animal feed that instead seems to be making cows spontaneously explode.

Interestingly, the series is unbranded - there are no obvious mentions of Chipotle. Instead, the protagonist, (intentionally) named Chip embodies all the values Chipotle stands for.

Production of the series placed an emphasis on quality from filming to post-processing. The series was shot on cameras typically used for blockbusters and post-editing was top-notch.

The series is currently airing weekly on Hulu.

Why People Talked About It:

Audiences appreciate when an effort is put into content. Chipotle understands this, dedicating immense effort (and funds) towards production value.

Talking about ads in daily conversation is akin to emailing spam. It's also how one earns the label "fanboy". By keeping the series unbranded, viewers are encouraged to talk about the series like they would a TV series.

And just look at how many of your friends are talking about Game Of Thrones.

3. Chipotle's Always On Your Mind (Because It's Always On Your Phone)

The Chipotle app allows users to skip the line and make orders at Chipotle before they get there.

Customers can save their usual order on the app and with a few taps, head into a nearby Chipotle for a fuss and wait-free dining experience or a high-speed takeaway.

The app, designed by app developer Blue Rocket, placed an emphasis on frictionless and repeatable ordering including functions like pre-payment options and a store finder.

The app did phenomenally well, becoming the highest-rated app on the on Apple’s US App Store’s top 20 list and encouraging manner competitors to release similar programs

Why People Talked About It:

We live in a generation where doctors have named neck injuries resulting from staring at our phones too much (Text Neck). People use their smartphones more than any other device they own, having the app installed results in Chipotle constantly being on users minds.

Being able to make an order before heading to a store makes dining extra convenient. Chipotle has made fast food faster, turning a meal at Chipotle into the top-of-mind (and thus tip of the tongue) solution for a time-starved generation.

4. Chipotle Gets The Nation Talking About An Important Issue

“Back To The Start” is an animated short that tells the story of a pig farmer who allows his humane family farm to be warped into a cruel industrialized farming compound.

He eventually feels the consequences of his mistake and goes “Back To The Start”, returning to sustainable; humane farming practices.

The ad began as a 2-minute web short but was so well received Chipotle began buying media around it. It was then screened in close to 6,000 movie theatres around the country where it received thunderous applause from movie-goers.

Realizing they had a hit on their hands, Chipotle bought a spot during the Grammy awards and brought the ad to the entire nation where it went on to make a total of 300 Million PR impressions.

In addition, the ad was a hit within the advertising industry, winning the Cannes Grand Prix in the Branded Content and Film categories.

Why People Talked About It:

Inhumane farming is a subject that isn’t easy to address.

Awareness campaigns by animal rights organizations like PETA tend to be rather extreme and alienating while efforts by less intense organizations tend to be rather bland.

The ad narrated a compelling story about a dicey issue in a moving, thought-provoking manner. It got people thinking and talking about a subject they cared about but couldn’t easily discuss before.

5. Chipotle Quietly Gives Pro Athletes Free Burritos For Life

For decades, companies have been paying astronomical sums for celebrity endorsements. The publicity and image-boost from a celebrity tweeting about or being photographed with a product often justify the cost.

While many companies have tried to coax celebrities into talking about their products by sending them free merchandise, Chipotle has been using a slightly different strategy.

When a high-profile athlete mentions a love for Chipotle they’re sent a card that entitles them to a free burrito a day, for life. Chipotle asks for nothing in return, but many recipients have taken to social media to announce their joy.

Athletes known to have the free-burrito card include NBA’s Mario Chalmers, professional lacrosse player Paul Rabil and the legendary skateboarder, Tony Hawk.

Why People Talked About It:

With no monetary exchange, consumers genuinely believe these athletes love Chipotle when they mention the brand.

This stands in stark contrast against the unconvincing product placement and celebrity endorsements consumers are bombarded with.

In support of their favourite athletes or just as interesting trivia, the idea of someone (especially professional sportsmen/women) receiving free burritos for life and genuinely loving it makes for good conversation.

6. Chipotle Is Optimised To Delight Customers

Like many of the most talked-about companies in the world, Chipotle has a strong emphasis on delighting customers.

This all begins with fantastic restaurant experiences, which Chipotle ensures through amazing customer service.

Chipotle does this by ensuring its staff enjoy working in their restaurants. As one of the few non-franchised fast-food chains in America, it’s been able to implement systems that boost employee empowerment, loyalty and happiness.

The company places an emphasis on promoting managers from within the service ranks. Theoretically, a crew member on hourly wage could be promoted all the way to be a manager for more than 50 restaurants. In 2014, nearly 86% of salaried and 96% of hourly management positions resulted from internal promotions.

There are also systems in place that ensure customers never feel rushed or ignored even during rush hours. Additional staff members are employed without fully defined job scopes to assist between key service points (e.g burrito assembly and payment), trainees are kept away from key roles during rush hours and equipment are all fully laid out and prepared without fail before peak periods.

Why People Talked About It:

Customers love sharing great experiences, especially unexpected ones - fast food restaurants are not typically known for exceptional service.

Read: 17 Ways That 15 Companies Got Massive Word-of-Mouth By Delighting Their Customers

7. Chipotle Hosts Free Festivals And Generates Local Buzz

Since 2011, Chipotle has been hosting “Cultivate”, a series of free festivals throughout America with live music, celebrity chef demonstrations, artisanal food and activities that spread awareness about sustainable agriculture.

2013’s “Cultivate” drew more than 300,000 attendees across San Francisco, Denver and Chicago and were featured in local media.

Why People Talked About It:

Attending “Cultivate” is a wholesome, low-cost weekend activity for people of all ages. Coupled with local media coverage, people in nearby communities would discuss them as weekend plans. Fans of musicians and celebrity chefs would also get people talking, promoting the event through promoting their idols.

Read: Contests, Conferences, Festivals and Launch Parties – 32 Examples Of Marketing Using Events

8. Chipotle Runs A News Column To Spread It's Message

Since 2014, Chipotle has been running a sponsored column on the Huffington Post called “Food For Thought” dedicated to “creating awareness about how food is grown, raised and prepared and the effects this system has on us.”

The column features content from industry experts and knowledgeable consumers alongside links to Chipotle’s other marketing efforts.

Why People Talked About It:

Chipotle has chosen to back an issue significant enough for people to discuss at length. By pairing with a news site and releasing a constant stream of content, Chipotle gives consumers even more points to talk, think and debate about.

9. Chipotle Was Punished For Being Too Successful

“The Scarecrow” was an integrated campaign that included an animated short, a mobile game and a song. The campaign depicts a scarecrow’s (representing Chipotle) efforts to combat the fictional evil industrial farming corporation, Crow Foods, by bringing sustainable food to the masses.

By the numbers, the campaign did incredibly well. The video garnered over 6 million views and the overall campaign generated over 614 million PR impressions.

In spite of this, some members of the agricultural and vegan communities lashed out at the video, accusing it of mocking farmers and reappropriating positive messages about veganism for its own meat-filled burrito marketing.

Why People Talked About It:

Like most of Chipotle’s other campaigns, it made consumers discuss the issue of sustainable food.

At the time of this campaign, Chipotle had become deeply associated with being a voice for farmers and consumers that cared about their food sources. Those who did not feel accurately represented by Chipotle were the primary source of the backlash. The takeaway here would be an awareness of the double-edged sword that is cause marketing - there's always a possibility of being misunderstood.

Regardless, the success of the campaign dwarfed its problems, generating impressive buzz and word-of-mouth for Chipotle.

10. Food with integrity

chipotle food with integrity

Chipotle’s motto is “Food with integrity”. Chipotle is committed to serving customers with food that is nutritious, naturally produced and socially responsible.

In fact, Chipotle is the first American fast-food chain to eliminate GMO from its ingredients.

Chipotle markets itself as a healthier alternative to other fast-food chains, playing up its natural ingredients, healthier options and socially-conscious food production chain.

To exhibit its commitment towards this ethos, in January 2015, one-third of all Chipotle chains stopped serving carnitas, after discovering that pork suppliers weren’t adhering to animal welfare standards.

6 - 7% of Chipotle’s entree orders include carnitas, and the company was prepared for significant customer backlash.

However, customers responded positively. Chris Arnold, communications director at Chipotle said, “The response was, ‘Kudos to Chipotle for standing on principle.’”

Word-of-mouth tip: Chipotle has a strong brand ethos that it is diligently committed to. By staying true to its core values and acting in adherence to these values, customers see that Chipotle is a brand that walks the talk, generating good publicity for the brand via WOM.

11. Creative social media content that conveys their brand's ethos and generates WOM

Chipotle’s social media platforms rarely feature official Chipotle content, but when they do, they make sure it’s worth your time.

The brand focuses on creating exciting and animated content through the use of music and animation graphics.

And every piece of content they produce relates back to Chipotle’s core philosophy -- to get customers to think about where their food comes from, and to eat responsibly.

In the 2012 Grammy Awards, Chipotle launched its first television advertisement -- a 2-minute film entitled “Back to the Start”, telling the story of a farmer who industrialises his farm, and then decides that he is happier with more humane farming techniques, reverting back to old ways.

The film was a success, generating more than 9 million views on Youtube, and generating lots of retweets and reposts on Twitter and Facebook.

Word-of-mouth tip: Creative social media content that drives home a strong message that resonates with customers will generate its own WOM on the social web.

12. Genuine online interactions with customers allows Chipotle to connect meaningfully with fans

chipotle customers interaction twitter

Chipotle has 740k followers on Twitter and over 2.8 million likes on Facebook. It is safe to say that the brand has a huge online following.

Chipotle’s social media activity on these platforms is once again underpinned by the brand ethos of getting customers to think about where their food comes from.

Statistics show that Chipotle social media managers respond to 83% of all Facebook posts.

In fact, 90% of Chipotle’s activity on Twitter is responding to customers with @- mentions.

Chipotle understands that every customer is an individual with a personality behind them, and tries to get to know its customers on a personal level, engaging with them in genuine conversations.

Word-of-mouth tip: Engaging with customers is key. Customers like to feel valued and appreciated as individuals. Taking the time to personally engage with customers builds friendships and cultivates strong brand loyalty.

Before We Wrap Up, Let's Review The Takeaways From These Examples:

  1. When crowdsourcing content, keep things as simple as possible
  2. Consumers appreciate it when effort and heart is put into content creation
  3. Invade the spaces your audience frequents the most
  4. You can gain greater reach by promoting an issue greater than your business
  5. The best celebrity endorsements are honest and genuine
  6. Delight your customers and they will talk about you
  7. Grassroots level efforts are still relevant
  8. If your business backs a cause spread the word as widely as you can
  9. "Cause Marketing", while very effective, can lead to unexpected consequences

And lastly, some questions to ponder:

  • What is a cause my customers care about?
  • How can my business back a cause in a genuine way?


Jon Tan
Jon Tan

My coffee expenses and my office rental are one and the same.Terrified of mathematics and carbohydrates.

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