Chipotle ad campaign takes on 'Big Food,' targets Millennials

Chipotle's latest ad campaign, a rich, animated short film coupled with an online video game, rails against industrial farming and 'Big Food.' The new Chipotle campaign takes a page directly from the 'marketing to Millennials' handbook. 

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/File
The sign of a Chipotle restaurant is pictured in Pasadena, Calif. The company noted a long-term concern about a potential guacamole menu change due to avocado shortages, causing a hullabaloo among Chipotle devotees.

Chipotle doesn’t do a huge amount of video-based advertising, instead relying mainly on billboards, radio, and Web ads. But when it does, it aims for maximum impact by doing something small and attention-grabbing, then using Internet buzz and cable news chatter as its primary forms of distribution. Its latest ad campaign is no exception.

Thursday, the fast-casual Mexican chain posted “The Scarecrow” online – a short, richly drawn animated film that marks only the second video advertisement in its 20-year existence. The film chronicles a scarecrow’s journey to provide city-dwellers a more homegrown alternative to the food offered by “Crow Foods,” an industrialized factory farm at the center of the city. (Crow Foods is run by evil robot crows, the natural enemies of helpful scarecrows). Fiona Apple, a singer/songwriter provides the soundtrack, singing a haunting cover of the song “Pure Imagination" from the movie “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

Created by Moonbot Studios, an Oscar-winning animation outfit, “The Scarecrow” is paired with a free, downloadable video game that tells the same story. Chipotle will offer buy-one-get-one free coupons to the first 1 million customers who successfully complete the game.

The film and game are just the teaser. In 2014, Chipotle will roll out four TV episode-length “dark comedies” taking on the conventionally processed food industry, according to USA Today. "We're trying to educate people about where their food comes from," Mark Crumpacker, Chipotle chief marketing officer, told the newspaper.

"The Scarecrow” is similar in feel to Chipotle’s first national TV ad, “The Farmer,” which told the story of a farmer’s switch to factory farming and then back to pasture-raised methods over a Willie Nelson cover of Coldplay’s song “The Scientist.”

Both ads aim to accomplish two things. For one, they address the serious, often depressing (and graphic) issue of industrial farming practices in a light, almost whimsical way and reinforce Chipotle’s identity as a food giant that tries to do the right thing – the company prides itself on using as much “naturally raised” meat and organics as possible, something that has been a focal point of its marketing for more than a decade.

Second, they go hard after the company’s Millennial target market, via unconventional modes of release, a reliance on social media to help the ads spread, and a de-emphasis on the Chipotle brand itself. Indeed, the Chipotle logo only appears one time each in “The Scarecrow” film and video game, and it’s small both times. 

That might seem like an unwise marketing strategy – after all, isn’t the whole point to sell more Chipotle burritos? – but it has some research to back it up. Millennials, according to several studies, are less concerned with brand loyalty than previous generations. A survey released last year by market research firm WSL Strategic Retail found that 60 percent of Millennials would ditch their preferred brand of a product if they could get a better price with a different brand. On the auto front, J.D. Power 2013 New Autoshopper Study found that 54 percent of Millennials were open to any brand at all when shopping for a vehicle.

Chipotle’s ad campaigns thus far seem to have taken that research to heart, prioritizing process over name. 

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