Soon after Brian Niccol took over as chief executive of Chipotle Mexican Grill early this year, Wall Street speculated over what plays he’d make to resuscitate the brand, still battered by food safety incidents of the past.
Curious industry watchers wondered if he’d employ the same tactics that delivered home runs at his former employer, Taco Bell.
Nine months later, it’s safe to say Niccol has taken the bull by the horns at Chipotle. In September, he relocated the company from its Denver home base to the luxe community of Newport Beach, Calif.
Along with his new CMO Chris Brandt, another Taco Bell alum, Niccol has made several moves to elevate the brand’s profile and street cred — from entering a float in the Rose Parade to breaking the internet with a free guacamole promotion.
Restaurant consultant Jeff McNeal said Niccol has clearly been taking a page from Taco Bell’s playbook by using buzz words like “craveable” and “creating culture” when referring to Chipotle.
“If you think about it, those words are used in Taco Bell advertising,” said McNeal, president of Fessel International Hospitality Consultants in Southern California.
Here are five marketing and menu moves, each with a ring of familiarity, that caught our attention:
In December, Chipotle launched its first line of holiday wrapping paper. The playful gift set, sold for $50, featured three types of wrapping paper designs: salsa, guacamole and foil.
Taco Bell move: Taco Bell is far from the only quick-service chain to sells branded merchandise. But there’s a certain Taco Bell wackiness behind the idea of designing wrapping paper to look like Chipotle’s signature foil-wrapped burritos. True to form, Taco Bell is offering jumpsuit pajamas that look like hot sauce packets.
In late July, Chipotle celebrated National Avocado Day by giving away free guacamole with an online or in-app purchase of an entrée. The move was made to drive digital sales, a crucial part of Niccol’s recovery plan.
In early remarks to Wall Street, he promised a “maniacal” focus on improving digital platforms and access to the brand.
The guacamole promotion made good on that promise. That day, Chipotle said digital sales went up nearly 60 percent, making July 31 “Chipotle's biggest summer sales day and record breaking for internet sales,” the company said.
This week, Chipotle announced a “Free Delivery Bowl” promotion tied to college football. As the annual bowl games commence, the chain is offering free delivery on any Chipotle order worth $10 or more through Jan. 7.
Taco Bell move: Restaurant chains give away food all the time. But, when Taco Bell gives away free tacos, the world tends to stop. The brand’s past giveaways have created palpable buzz, and that was true for Chipotle with the free guacamole day. In fact, McNeal called Chipotle’s guacamole promo “huge” and “a total Taco Bell move.”
Creative marketing installations
Chipotle is stepping up its marketing activations. The brand’s “food with integrity” message has always been the cornerstone of its traditional ad programming. But, this year, Niccol and Brandt have created clever campaigns to underscore the chain’s “For Real” campaign.
At a store in New York, the chain created a holiday window display made from Chipotle's 51 “real” ingredients. And, on Jan. 1, Chipotle is entering its first float in the Rose Parade. The “Cultivate a Better World” float will be built using Chipotle ingredients including roughly 200 pounds of chili flakes, as well as ground onion seeds, cumin, cloves, oregano, bay leaves, corn, onions, rice, garlic, thyme, chilies, tomatoes, tomatillos, red onions, yellow onions, avocados and cilantro.
Taco Bell move: McNeal said Chipotle is extending the brand in unconventional ways, and through culture-driving activations, both of which are in Taco Bell’s DNA. Case in point: Taco Bell’s pop-up shipping container restaurant at the South by Southwest festival, the recreation of a Taco Bell restaurant from the film “Demolition Man” at this year’s Comic-Con festival in San Diego and the recent Big Ben takeover to celebrate the chain’s London debut.
Food experimentation and LTOs
In early August, Chipotle — whose small menu has remained largely the same over the years — said it would be testing bacon as an topping option as well as nachos and a late-night $2 menu in certain U.S. markets. The experiments are part of Niccol’s plan to add craveable foods to the menu, while making the brand more accessible with extended hours — another Taco Bell hallmark. In September, the brand created buzz when it brought back fan favorite chorizo.
Taco Bell move: Food bloggers and influencers love to stumble upon fast-food experiments, as most traditional brands often avoid discussing menu tests. But Taco Bell figured out a long time ago that teasing people with experiments builds anticipation. What else screams Taco Bell? Taking a beloved product off the menu but bringing it back at a later time. Think Nacho Fries and Beefy Crunch Burrito.
Hosting media events
In June, Chipotle forced national media, including NRN, to check their calendars when they were invited to a food tasting event at their test kitchen restaurant in New York.
Was it April Fools’ Day in June? The normally tight-lipped chain was finally releasing information to the media about menu testing. It was rare for the media-shy company. Brandt told NRN, at the time, that the event was an attempt to “build excitement and conversation around the brand.”
Taco Bell move: Shy is not a word used to describe Taco Bell’s relationship with the press. The brand routinely sends the media updates throughout the year and invites reporters and social media influencers to its headquarters in Irvine, Calif., to sample test items a few times a year. In some cases, the chain has let media in on big menu launches — including the Naked Egg Taco and Nacho Fries — months before the announcements are made official.
Contact Nancy Luna at [email protected]
Follow her on Twitter: @FastFoodMaven