Chipotle to be a “purpose-driven lifestyle brand”

by Nigel Hollis | August 01, 2018

I applaud any company that manages to maintain a strong sense of purpose, and maybe that is why I am fascinated by Chipotle, the fast-casual restaurant. However, when I read that Chipotle’s new chief marketing officer aims to make the brand a “purpose-driven lifestyle brand” it made me wonder what that might really mean.

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Chipotle is a fast-casual restaurant chain dedicated to using responsibly raised food in its burritos, burrito bowls, tacos, and salads. Under the stewardship of Steve Ells, the brand’s founder, Chipotle has grown rapidly, from first opening in 1993, to 2,400 restaurants today. As Ells describes in the company’s 2017 Annual Report, his original idea was to create a new fast food experience focused on great tasting food made with high-quality ingredients, but the emphasis shifted to changing the way people think about, and eat, fast food.

The company’s commitment to “Food With Integrity” became a central theme to the Chipotle experience and was articulated in the ‘Back to the Start’ video. Chipotle’s sense of purpose and differentiated dining experience looked set to keep the brand growing as fast as it could open new restaurants, but food safety issues stopped growth in its tracks (something that still periodically rears its head, even as soon as last week). Topline revenue in 2016 dropped 13 percent over the prior year, recovering to 2015 levels in 2017.

The big challenge is that Chipotle’s fundamental purpose increases the risks it faces as a business. The company’s annual report states,

“Our Food With Integrity philosophy subjects us to risks.”

Further noting,

“There are higher costs and other risks associated with purchasing ingredients grown or raised with an emphasis on quality, sustainability and other responsible practices.”

I often suggest that purpose only drives brand growth if a brand is willing to make sacrifices in order to achieve the stated goal. In Chipotle’s case, the brand’s sense of purpose does expose it to more risk and I worry that the new aim of becoming a “purpose-driven lifestyle brand” signals that investors are losing faith that the brand’s sense of purpose is an asset not just a liability. Is talk of lifestyle a way to rebrand the company and downplay its commitment to responsibly-raised food?

Like David B. Srere, quoted in the New York Times article, I worry that the stated aim of trying to make Chipotle a brand that people want to wear smacks of marketing mumbo jumbo. Purpose is not just something you talk about in your marketing; to be effective it needs to be embedded in every aspect of the business. But maybe the comments of the company’s chief marketing officer, Christopher Brandt, actually are a signal that Chipotle is going to double down on its purpose and do a Patagonia; put its money where its mouth is.

But what do you think? Marketing mumbo jumbo or real purpose? What is your bet? Please share your thoughts. 

9 comments

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  1. Emmanuel Probst, August 13, 2018

    Thanks Nigel,

    see also Mark Ritson's recent article on brand purpose. As always, he is taking a a strong stance on the topic: 

    https://www.marketingweek.com/2018/07/25/mark-ritson-brand-purpose-contrived-data-hypocrisy/

  2. Nigel, August 08, 2018

    Thanks for the comments!

    I guess this post was in part inspired by my own reaction to the word "lifestyle." As Jeremy suggests, I think a brand becomes part of your lifestyle because it adds value in some way, my life is better functionally and emotionally as a result of using it. People adopt brands into their lifestyle once they have proved their value, not before. 

    When a marketer states that their objective is to become a lifestyle brand it implies to me that they aiming to add a facile, faddish or fun layer to the brand without paying attention to the fundamental experience. A brand that already delivers a great brand experience might do that and thrive, any other needs to fix the basics first. 

  3. Lee, August 06, 2018

    Interesting thinking.  Sounds like Chipotle hopped on the 'Lifestyle' bandwagon.  My guess would be that what they mean by it is extending to kitchenware, food stuffs, spices, tableware etc.  I can see that link.  

    It sounds like they aren't sure they can afford to have high standards; you call it sacrifices, which generally require trade-offs.  what's the cost of checking every head of lettuce and each pound of ground beef for ecoli? can you deliver responsibly-raise food at medium-level prices?  Can one run 2,450 restaurants with responsibly-raised food -- are there enough suppliers?  these are questions of our time, not just for Chipotle.  

  4. Jana smejcova, August 06, 2018

    Hi, great example of how the investors can ruin a great vision & purpose & potentially company. Because what was the key driver of the sucess by now? What a pity! But perhaps this was the long term plan anyway...

  5. Ed, August 03, 2018
    https://www.cnbc.com/2018/08/01/ohio-health-agency-gets-518-inquires-in-potential-chipotle-outbreak.html 
  6. Will Corke, August 02, 2018

    'A principle isn't a principle unless it costs you money.'

    but equally...

    'These are my principles. If you don't like them, I have others.'

    It does seem that Chipotle is genuine and serious about their purpose and is making proper changes to operations as a result, so I think we can forgive them the use of the woolly 'lifestyle' word.

  7. Jeremy Diamond, August 01, 2018
    Personally I think that 'lifestyle' is one of those meaningless words that should be banned from strategic discussions like 'confidence' and 'control'.  All brands should transcend functional benefits and offer an emotional 'lifestyle' benefit - otherwise they're not brands, they're products.  Regarding purpose, this can be a useful stimulus when developing a positioning (if the audience would be responsive to this),  but it is a slippery slope to think that all brands should have a noble societal purpose - their job is to satisfy customers, which is the most noble purpose of all.  
  8. Peter Walshe, August 01, 2018
    If the 'purpose' serves to make the brand different in a way that is meaningful to consumers, then it will be more attractive and can potentially command a premium over competitors - which is necessary in the case of Chipotle to meet investor needs.  It will need to live by this so that the experience of customers is noticeably better due to the stated purpose. Easy to say but harder to do. But if they are clear and transparent about their efforts then suppliers, staff and customers will be on their side.
  9. Piers, August 01, 2018

    Its catching...

    https://info.restaurantspacesevent.com/blog/taco-bell-reinvents-itself-into-a-full-fledged-lifestyle-brand

    Perhaps there will now be room for a Mexican themed chain restaurant that just focuses on great product experience/food.  Though that might require a senior marketer with a surname that also includes the word 'brand' and I think the world may be running out of those now.

    PS:  I always thought Lifestyle brands set out to be brands with a clear POV on what they are and what they are not and become part of a lifestyle because they clearly embody something that people who live a certain lifestyle can strongly relate to.  This is the antithesis of jumping on a purpose/lifestyle brand-wagon isn't it?  perhaps I'm wrong, perhaps we are seeing the birth of a Taco Bell vs Chipotle West Side Story

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