Are Free Burritos the Secret Ingredient to Chipotle’s Crisis Communications Strategy?
Just a little over a year since its first, wildly successful Kinda Sorta Free Burrito Day in 2015, Chipotle once again was in a position to offer consumers a complimentary meal. This time, the circumstances were less than tasty, due to a crisis communications nightmare.
The chain decided to close its nearly 2,000 stores for several hours on Monday, February 8, so that Chipotle employees could go through a half-day training to learn new company-wide food safety procedures. As a mea culpa to visitors who missed their barbacoa burrito fix that day, Chipotle sent out coupons to anyone whose lunch plans had been derailed. All you had to do to grab your free burrito was text “raincheck” to 888-222.
Unless you’ve somehow missed the headlines, you know some of the reasoning behind this decision: the Centers for Disease Control linked Chipotle to multiple, successive outbreaks of foodborne illness during the latter half of 2015. First, it was E. coli. Then, the norovirus. Then, salmonella. Then, E. coli again.
Aside from causing its stock to drop 40%, Chipotle’s food safety issues potentially have damaged the company’s brand and reputation as a healthier, quality ingredients-driven alternative to fast food. Evidence of the damage: Consumers started avoiding their once-favorite burrito stop, contributing to a 44% drop in fourth-quarter profit and a 30% sales drop at established Chipotle locations.
For a food and beverage purveyor, especially one that touts its integrity, an association with disease can take a long time to fade. Food is a life-sustaining force, something we crave not only for nourishment, but cultural connection and emotional comfort. A segment in a recent episode of Last Night With John Oliver brutally captured the sentiment (NSFW). Food poisoning isn’t like an automotive defect or a predatory loan. It’s a danger we understand on an instinctual level.
And yet, saying “yes” to free food, especially from a brand most of us (OK—at least I do) love. Brand may not be enough to help Chipotle entirely weather the crisis among all its consumers, but it might be sufficient to draw some former regulars back into restaurants, where they can see Chipotle’s improved safety measures firsthand. Meanwhile, the company intends to center its energy on efforts such as media outreach and direct mail, and focus its broad marketing message away from explicit mentions of food safety issues.
At the very least, Chipotle’s raincheck promotion is a gesture of goodwill. But from a strategic PR perspective, it’s also a great example of the kind of creative thinking that can bring a food and beverage brand out of crisis communication mode and into the arduous work of restoring positive consumer attitudes. Assuming the Quesalupa doesn’t take over the world first.