Chipotle’s CMO on how the brand quickly pivoted in response to coronavirus


Chris Brandt explains how the QSR changed its entire marketing plan in the past month, leading it to enlist Zoom and support healthcare workers.

As the coronavirus continues to disrupt daily life and the global economy, marketers must continue to figure out how to operate on this unprecedented and rapidly changing landscape. This is particularly true in the restaurant industry, where more than $25 billion and more than 3 million jobs were lost during the first 22 days of March, according to the National Restaurant Association.

As shelter-in-place orders and dine-in restrictions persist, restaurant marketers have a unique challenge of messaging around delivery and take-out capabilities, employee safeguards and corporate responsibility efforts related to the pandemic.

Among those leading the way are Chipotle Mexican Grill and its CMO Chris Brandt. The QSR chain started the year strong, reaching more than 95 million people with a TikTok effort around the Super Bowl — a campaign that now feels like it belongs to a different time. In the past month, Chipotle has pivoted from things like the TikTok campaign and plans around March Madness to focus on delivery, community-building efforts and supporting healthcare workers. Along the way, the chain had to completely rework its messaging and media plan while remaining sensitive to consumer concerns around the pandemic.

“While others were figuring out what to do, we were actually doing it,” Brandt told Marketing Dive in an interview.

Brandt, awarded Executive of the Year in 2019 by our sister publication Mobile Marketer, spoke with Marketing Dive about Chipotle’s efforts during the pandemic, walking through the evolution of its messaging, highlighting the infrastructure that made swift change possible and looking ahead to marketing post-pandemic.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

MARKETING DIVE: When did you first know that Chipotle’s marketing would have to address coronavirus, and what steps did you take?

CHRIS BRANDT: The strategy we’ve had for the past couple years has been to drive differences in transactions and menu innovation across digital and really be a part of culture. We were off to such a roll at the beginning of the year, but around March 10 or 11, we knew that things were different and we had to pivot. What’s going to be relevant in culture?

Zoom was getting more downloads. With people staying home — people are social creatures, they’re going to need an outlet — that’s where Chipotle Together came from. We tapped into some of the fans we’ve used in the past: Colton Underwood, Luke Bryan, Whole30 founder Melissa Urban, Gronk. Those things were a way for people to connect in this new world. Each week seems almost like a year in the evolution of how things have been [changing], and we wanted Chipotle to be a source of positivity in the crazy world.

We also pivoted our entire advertising message on March 10 or 11. We knew delivery was going to be the thing… Every piece of creative we had, we tacked on a “free delivery” message. We made a brand new delivery spot out of existing footage. We tested it as an online video, and it tested really well so we started running that.

We also had to pivot an entire media plan. We were heavily invested in sports, and the NCAA and NBA were obviously off, so we tried to look at where people were going. We had been on Hulu, but we put ourselves on Roku, doubled down our investment on Twitch, and really doubled down on Facebook, Instagram and social. Social has always been a part of Chipotle and being relevant in consumers’ lives. Our consumers tend to be more millennial and Gen Z than the average fast casual restaurant.

We’ve really put in a lot of mechanisms to measure this stuff and look at real-time ROI and where to put more money. We built this team to be able to react quickly and be decisive and move.

Following those initial moves and as the health crisis spread, how has Chipotle’s marketing continued to change?

BRANDT: As things moved on, we saw highlights of healthcare workers and how heroic they are — the message had to evolve.

We would have done free burritos for healthcare workers sooner but we had to figure out how to get to them; we figured out a mechanism where they apply online. We did Burritos For Heroes with National Burrito Day and we were oversubscribed three- to four-times: 50,000 burritos became 100,000 burritos. We started delivering last week, and some folks are putting personalized messages on burritos.

The idea for gift cards where we will match 10% and donate to Direct Relief to provide for medical professionals was a response to people asking “how can we help?” Our CEO Brian Niccol was on Jim Kramer’s show and he liked the burritos, he wanted to know how people could help. We had the gift card idea in the works, but didn’t want to have consumers putting money into the effort.

All of those things were what’s going on in culture. How do we make it work, how does it fit with Chipotle?

How did these efforts grow out of what Chipotle was already doing before March?

BRANDT: This is the time for digital to not only support the company in the short term. We were really lucky to have digital infrastructure in place that was part of strategy, and we were able to leverage it.

The mission of the company is to cultivate a better world, whether with Chipotle Together, Burritos for Heroes, gift cards or just good food for a good price when consumers are at home. Everybody’s routine is disrupted — at least they still have this. People have been really receptive to the things we’ve done, and we’re just trying to help out in addition to getting people into our loyalty program and into our digital ecosystem that haven’t been there before.

How has downturn affected marketing spend and decision-making?

BRANDT: A big thing we put in place when I got here was a marketing analytics team that is constantly looking at what we do. There’s the old adage that “half of my marketing budget is wasted, I just don’t know which half.” I just don’t think that’s true anymore, because you can measure so many things. We knew where we had success in the past, but we flipped a bunch of budget. We also converted from awareness [messaging]to more “order now” and “how do you order” messaging.

Another big piece is our CRM capabilities, which are still evolving. We have over 8.5 million Chipotle Rewards members, which is a big help for us because we can contact them with relevant messaging. What has really been resonating with them is telling them what Chipotle is doing. We gave a 10% pay increase and paid out bonuses for January and February.

Consumers want to know now what good companies are doing. We’re fortunate at Chipotle that a mission of cultivating a better world has always been our thing. We’re lucky that we were well capitalized to pay that bonus, and that we are helping during a difficult time for everybody.

What should other CMOs keep in mind when changing marketing during the pandemic?

BRANDT: You have to have a good sense of who your brand is, what it can do and what people want it to do, and you have to be really decisive.

On March 10 and 11, I said, “This is when we’re really going to earn our money.” We had a fabulous plan, and it was a shame to see it go up in smoke, but you have to be decisive. While others were figuring out what to do, we were actually doing it, because we have a good sense of who our consumer is and what our brand tone is. Chipotle Together is right on our brand tone, so we fell back on our fundamentals.

You can’t be afraid to tear something up if the winds change. As tough as it was to blow up or modify our media plan and change messaging, it was the right thing to do. It was an opportunity to try some new places; we advertised on Nextdoor for the first time and leaned more on streaming.

How will marketing be different once the lockdowns are over?

BRANDT: In the short term, consumers are going to be a lot more focused on brand values, which they already have been for the past five years. They’re going to look even more at how you treat employees, what have you done for consumers and what good is the brand doing. Consumers will be a lot more focused on what brands did during this crisis and what they’re doing going forward. Are employees healthy? How do they treat them? Are restaurants safe?

Those have been the emails people have opened the most, to find what brands are doing. It’s always been there, but it’s hyperaccelerated in a time of need. Those will be the lasting impressions people have. If you can do a good job now, those reputations will carry you, and if you do a bad job, you’re going to have a lot of catching up to do.

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