Recently, I had the opportunity to weigh in for an Adweek story focused on the trend of popular restaurant brands expanding into new cuisines. As customer’s palates (and options) expand, they look for a fast, decently health-conscious choice – and brand recognition makes all the difference. I decided to delve deeper into the topic and, more specifically, into the power of Chipotle’s “Cultivate” strategy in building its current and new brands.
Building a Successful Brand Strategy
Since its launch 21 years ago, Chipotle has scorned most conventional marketing and held firm to its bold brand promise: Food with Integrity. America’s favorite Mexican restaurant chain has recently received a lot of media attention about its oft-shared Scarecrow video–a strong stand against genetically modified foods–and Farmed and Dangerous, an original comedy series created to highlight problems in the food industry. It hasn’t just spread the word about organic standards, it’s kept its word. And staying true to that word is working: In its most recent quarterly results, the Denver-based chain reports that revenue climbed 24 percent, with sales at comparable restaurants up 13 percent. Profits? Up 9 percent.
Now, Chipotle is quietly dipping its toe into new formats including ShopHouse, an Asian concept, and Pizzeria Local, an extra-fast pizza restaurant. So you can’t blame observers for asking the obvious: Will its success in one flavor realm guarantee success in others? And should Chipotle leverage its actual brand name to attract current customers to these new concepts? I say yes to both for many reasons.
First, Chipotle has a firm grasp on one of our most important brand makers: Millennials. Millennials believe in what Chipotle stands for: Community. And based on that insight, the brand has consistently created a way for its customers to explore their interest in “food with a conscience,” making what could be tedious and preachy into an ongoing dialogue and movement that is both socially conscious and good for the palette. Leveraging the Chipotle brand in these new concepts will play very well with Millennials who drive a disproportionate share of margin for the franchise and vote not just with their visits, but with their likes, follows, tweets and Instagrams. Starting with Millennials and cascading from these new concepts will accelerate their growth potential, quickly.
Leveraging the community
Second, the expansion comes at a time when the company is bolstering its “Cultivate Festival” series, its 3-year-old branded (and free) series of outdoor festivals that draw between 25,000 and 40,000 people and build an ongoing and expanding community – the currency of great brand-builders today. The festivals are a terrific way to underscore Chipotle’s identity by hooking people up with local foods, flavors and beer makers, all under the big tent of the Chipotle brand. And the festivals highlight the worthy work of the Cultivate Foundation with partners such as FarmAid and the Land Institute. This provides a perfect platform to build new brands and drive interest and awareness. Earned media on these events is tremendous, and most brands would pay highly to get exposure at levels that the festivals provide. Leverage the community, build the brand(s).
Third, Chipotle recently kicked off its “Cultivating Thought” program, another example of how it appeals to the integrity of its customer base. Bestselling author Jonathan Safran Foer was eating at a Chipotle when it occurred to him, he wished there was something interesting to read on his paper cup. While Chipotle has always used its bags and cup differently than competitors, it loved the idea of this new “Cultivating Thought” concept and tapped notable writers such as Toni Morrison, Malcolm Gladwell and comic Sarah Silverman for thought-provoking, two-minute reads accompanied by illustrations from arrange of talented artists. This program has gotten significant attention and again, significant earned media.
While branching out to new cuisine categories, Chipotle has a tremendous opportunity to create a seamless and coherent signature touchpoint through their Cultivate strategy. It’s a a soft, yet explicit endorsement and gives the brand a more formal method to tie its higher order “food with integrity” proposition together. Separately, if a soft endorsement strategy is adopted, it could be manifested in a very natural tag, such as “inspired by Chipotle’s sensibility.” This could imply the food is fresher, better for you, simple and sourced with integrity – despite the foods and flavors it’s offering. It’s an asset competitors would die for, and in the hyper competitive world of quick-serve restaurants, it may be the difference between success and failure.
It seems to me that the Cultivate strategy is an even more significant evolution of the brand than testing new restaurant concepts. While new concepts are shrewd (because let’s face it, consumers are fickle and restaurants fall out of fashion much faster than other businesses), Cultivate goes right to the core of Chipotle’s brand essence.
Bringing food, music and ideas together allows people to connect with the larger purpose of Chipotle. It helps reframe the brand beyond the burrito, into an organization that truly delivers on its promise.