Chipotle: Exploring the Ingredients of a Great Storyteller

Think about the last time you told a story your audience loved. In this story, what was at stake?

According to the folks at The Moth, stakes are essential in great storytelling. Stakes define what the characters, and perhaps the audience, stand to gain or lose.

For the marketing storytellers at Chipotle Mexican Grill, the question of what’s at stake can be answered by what’s in steak. Every story told by its content team falls under the “Food with Integrity” guiding mantra: Locally and responsibly sourced food is better for customers and the environment. For Chipotle, this is a story about the stakes of people and chickens and cows and the soil beneath organic corn.

Thanks to a content marketing plan focused on this story, not its products, Chipotle has seen the highest growth in the fast-casual dining industry over the last decade. In 2014, Chipotle reported revenue increased by 24.4% while spending only 2% of total revenue on advertising.

The recipe for Chipotle’s meteoric rise starts with meticulously prepared storytelling. So how do you tell a brand story like Chipotle? It starts with raising the stakes.

First, Know Your Story

In 2011, the marketing team at Chipotle was determined to tell a story of real consequence, rather than, say, dance a burrito across a banner ad. Chipotle wanted to create content that challenges consumer decision-making, related not just to last-minute dinner options, but issues you might bring up after dinner is served.

So Chipotle went to work brainstorming a narrative before deciding on the medium with which this story would be told. Too often marketers start with a canvas, be it a blog or a Twitter account, and hope to find the story within that frame. But in building a story on its own, content can then dictate delivery.

The result of Chipotle’s story-driven plan? “Back to the Start,” a two-minute animated video launched on YouTube. In this short film, a disheartened pig farmer rejects the industrial farming model and returns to a more traditional, humane practice. Willie Nelson (Farm Aid supporter) covers Coldplay (Make Trade Fair lobbyists) for the video’s devastating soundtrack.

This simple, touching short was so popular after its online release in August 2011 that Chipotle released it as an ad in more than 5,000 theaters. Media acclaim and 8 million-plus YouTube views convinced Chipotle to run the ad on television during the 2012 Grammy Awards.

Chipotle’s first television ad was not conceived in a box labeled “TV Ideas.” Instead, it all started with the Chipotle story. Great content marketing should always begin with the question: Does this tell our bigger story?

“If you really want to be loved and embraced by people, you can’t just put out a marketing campaign that spins what you’re doing,” says Jesse Coulter, the co-chief creative officer behind the pig farming film. “You have to practice what you preach.”

Reimagine Your Story

In early 2014, author Jonathan Safran Foer sat down in a Chipotle and it troubled him to have nothing to read with his meal. So he approached the company’s CEO Steve Ellis with an idea: Let’s tell memorable stories on disposable platforms.

“You have all of these surfaces in your restaurants, like the cups and the bags,” the writer recalls in a YouTube video. “Why don’t you just give something to people? Not as any kind of marketing tool. Not with any particular message. But just something thoughtful.”

Enter Chipotle’s “Cultivating Thought Author Series.” Foer, serving as project curator, contacted fellow contemporary writers and asked for a 300-word story “about anything.” Amy Tan, Neil Gaiman, Toni Morrison and Malcolm Gladwell, among many others, produced a wide range of content printed on Chipotle packaging.

This fun, creative endeavor illustrates Chipotle’s willingness to experiment with unusual content vehicles. In the last couple years we’ve seen the Chipotle story told through an original show on Hulu, a Huffington Post column and sponsored music festivals. It’s another benefit of starting with a defined story: More energy can be devoted to imagining and testing new ways of sharing that message.

Reimagining a story’s presentation is an efficient content marketing practice. In classrooms we’re taught in a variety of styles because we all consume and retain information differently. Consider this for your target audience. One of my favorite writers at ESPN recently started reading his columns in podcast form. Although he chuckled while sheepishly introducing the concept, it’s no laughing matter to double an audience reach with the same material.

Invite Your Audience Into the Story

Largely because customers are directly involved with creating their meal, the typical Chipotle menu has more than 65,000 possible variations. This collaborative approach found in-store plays a similarly vital role in Chipotle’s content marketing strategy. The company relies heavily on word-of-mouth promotion, so converting customers into brand evangelists often comes at the cost of a dangled reward. As the saying goes: You can’t cultivate a better tomorrow without burrito coupons.

This summer, Chipotle introduced its online “Friend or Faux” quiz, which compares the GMO (genetically modified organisms) in its menu items with other fast-food choices. This winning content invited readers to interact with a story and the reward was free food.


But keep in mind Chipotle doesn’t just shell out free burritos in exchange for clicks, likes and follows. The long-term play is consumer alignment, achieved through a content program designed to make people feel better about their food options; the stakes are clear and the story resonates.

A simple exercise to determine if content engages an audience is to play the role of the storyteller. Know the story well enough that you can tell it, without notes, to any audience. I promise you, the bigger story at the heart of great content marketing can be shared at a dinner party. And with practice, your audience will eat it up.

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