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Chipotle would rather be loved by customers than feared by competitors

People visit a Chipotle restaurant on February 09, 2022 in Miami, Florida.

Joe Raedle | Getty Images

Chipotle Mexican Grill has evolved into one of the most popular restaurant chains in the U.S., something its management team says is a credit to a change in marketing messaging under CEO Brian Niccol. 

Chief marketing officer Chris Brandt, who like Niccol joined Chipotle in 2018 and previously worked at Taco Bell, said the company’s previous marketing mostly centered around what made it better than other brands.  

Brandt told CNBC’s Julia Boorstin at a recent CNBC CMO Exchange virtual event that in recent years the company has emphasized what makes it unique and authentic, a shift which has translated into more sales and a cult social media following. 

Be more “visible, relevant and loved,” Brandt said.  

This marketing approach can require the company to take on social and political issues, and update its message for social media platforms where many younger consumers spend their time. Brandt weighed in on both of these topics during the conversation with CNBC.

Reminding employees that Chipotle is not a PAC 

Even prior to its shift in marketing messaging, Chipotle did not shy away from commenting on social issues. With Chipotle’s core demographic being younger overall, from the oldest millennials to college students, supporting causes like environmental sustainability and farmers wasn’t much of a risk. But in the wake of the social justice movement and increased activism, brands are often at a crossroads — silence or support — when it comes to thorny issues.

The desire to align with customer values can lead to concerns about sparking outrage or losing business. Some brands are more quiet than others to avoid the potential backlash from customers and politicians, but Brandt says there can be benefits to taking a stand, though the corporate approach can’t be all-or-nothing. 

“I’m firmly in the camp of ‘it depends,” Brandt said. 

Simply supporting all social causes can be viewed as performative activism to younger audiences, so Brandt says brands should be strategic with what causes they choose to support.   

“We have a definitely progressive culture, but the way I framed it for our teams is that we’re not a political action committee,” Brandt said.  

As opposed to addressing every social issue that arises, Chipotle encourages employees to be comfortable vocalizing their support of different issues.   

“Chipotle has been a long-time supporter of [sustainability]; we just can’t lay into every single issue, and I think that we really allow our employees a lot of latitude,” Brandt said. “‘You should pursue your passions, you should do that, but the company [will] not necessarily weigh in on every single one.”  

Becoming the No. 1 restaurant brand on TikTok 

Chipotle’s social media presence has also helped it develop loyalty among younger consumers.   

Amassing more than 1 million followers on all major social media platforms, its focus on TikTok, in particular, has paid off: in 2021, Chipotle became the “most followed food brand on TikTok.”  

Company social media challenges, like the #GuacDance or “Lid Flip Challenge,” broke records for the video sharing app.  

Brandt said Chipotle’s social media presence aligns with the traditional marketing philosophy of being where consumers are.   

“TikTok is, for the younger consumer, like TV,” Brandt said. “It is a broad awareness message.”  

While the company’s TikTok content may seem simplistic, Brandt said it helps to further present Chipotle as authentic on that platform, and he says each social media platform should be used strategically by brands.   

“The key thing is wherever you are, make sure your advertising is endemic to that platform. The things we put on TikTok are unique to TikTok,” Brandt said. “We have a group of people internally and with an agency that have a really good sense of what’s cool on TikTok, what will be popular on TikTok, and so we really turn them loose. We use influencers, we do all those things. Each one has its own role.”  



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