Chipotle stuck. namewell intervenes.

After two decades of legendary growth, things went very badly for Chipotle in 2015. Several high profile outbreaks of E. coli poisoning scared customers away, tanking the company’s sales and stock price.

Chipotle gave the right mea culpas while taking steps to make its food safer. But a year later, even after giving away over $60 million in free food, customer visitation remains way down, and there is growing speculation about whether it’s ever going to come back.

On a recent earnings call, Chipotle’s founder and co-CEO Steve Ells said “Our entire company is focused on restoring customer trust and re-establishing customer frequency.”

Chipotle’s interim head of marketing Mark Shambura said “…each visit from a customer, whether they’re a new or returning one, “provides an opportunity for [Chipotle] to restore trust.”

We get it. Chipotle’s brand mantra/promise is “food with integrity.”

That promise was broken in 2015. Chipotle is trying to fix it.

The intention is good. The strategy is not.

Through its food giveaways and talk about restoring trust, Chipotle has settled into an apologetic stance that was appropriate right after the food poisoning outbreaks. Now it just feels like Chipotle is stuck.

We’re reminded of a campaign Discover Card ran in the late 1990’s.

Back then, Discover Card wasn’t quite on the same “level” as Amex, Visa and Mastercard.

The problem was misperception among consumers that Discover Card wasn’t accepted as widely as the “big” cards.

So Discover Card ran ads touting its acceptance at the nation’s biggest retailers (Home Depot, Best Buy, etc.).

The intention was good. The strategy was not.

Consumers looked at the ads and thought “If Discover Card has to tell me that it’s accepted at this and that retailer, that must mean that Discover Card is not accepted at every retailer.”

Chipotle’s apologetic behavior is like Discover Card’s acceptance campaign: It’s not solving the problem it was intended to solve – and it may be making the problem worse.

The root cause of Chipotle’s problem is the “food with integrity” brand promise.

Chipotle serves food with integrity.

But making food with integrity Chipotle’s reason for being is a bad idea for the same reason airlines don’t build their brands around safety.

Promises of that nature will eventually be broken.

We are in no way saying that Chipotle should disavow its ‘food with integrity’ philosophy.

What we’re saying is that “food with integrity” should be part of a broader brand narrative that’s about the delicious love affair between Chipotle and its fans.

In other words, food with integrity needs to get wrapped in “Chipotlove.”

We look forward to a new story from Chipotle – one that isn’t about the past.

We would love to help write it.