What Can We Learn From Chipotle’s New Video?

chipotle-love-story-posterFictitious ad man Don Draper of the AMC hit series Mad Men famously said, “If you don’t like what is being said, then change the conversation” (season 3, episode 2).

While it’s inadvisable to take business advice from a TV character, the concept has merit and is used in PR regularly. It’s a savvy move to try to shift the topic when someone, perhaps a reporter, maybe your spouse, raises an issue you’d rather avoid. It doesn’t always work, especially when the other party is focused on obtaining an answer, as this video clip illustrates.

Still, business executives, politicians and others use the technique frequently. Veteran Washington, D.C., PR pro Andy Gilman, president/CEO, Commcore Consulting Group, wrote about “pivoting” away from unpleasant interview topics in a recent PR News Pro article. Gilman’s advice: Answer the vexing question and then try to pivot. After answering the question it’s best to use bridging phrases, Gilman counsels.No one phrase will work every time," he writes. "Have several ready: 'But' and 'however' are classics. Other phrases, depending on the question, include, 'Actually, that’s not the data we have seen,' or 'I can’t answer the first part of your question since I’m not our best expert on that subject, but here’s what I can say,' or 'I can’t answer that because of HIPAA or employee confidentiality rules, but for that kind of information, I can refer you to____,' and 'What I can say? I’m sure our competitors would love to know that information as well, here’s what I can share....'”

We’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not Chipotle’s intention was to change the conversation with the video it released July 5. It’s just 4 minutes, a tad long by mobile video standards, but very much worth a look, especially from a PR perspective. It’s intent is bound to be a topic of conversation among PR pros.

Heck, just about anything Chipotle does these days reaches the news. That tends to happen when your brand, a Wall Street darling, is hit with an E. coli outbreak in October 2015 that leads to a voluntary closing of more than 40 restaurants, more outbreaks, devastating stock losses, negative same-store sales and Chipotle's first quarterly loss since it went public.  That’s not even mentioning the indictment of Chipotle’s marketing head, Mark Crumpacker, on drug charges July 1, 2016. The brand suspended Crumpacker as a result.

Back to the video and changing the conversation. Like the 3-minute video Chipotle released in 2013, the new vid, A Love Story, is animated, gorgeously made and has an adorable message of simplicity over complexity. It mentions the Chipotle brand just once, at the video’s very end. It’s possible that some viewers will not watch the video to the bitter end and so might miss the call to action to join Chipotle’s rewards club. And this is not an apology video. E. coli and other food-borne issues have no place in the bucolic landscape the videographers have crafted.  Chipotle claims plans for the video were made prior to the October 2015 E. coli outbreak.

The only other explicit link to the brand is an appearance of chips and guacamole, which are seen briefly. Frankly, they disrupt the video's flow.

What's confusing is the plot. It seems strange given Chipotle’s recent events. The video tells the story of two youngsters, a boy and a girl, who start simple juice stands on opposite sides of the street—you know, hand-squeezed lemonade, 25 cents. While the boy looks longingly at the girl, eventually they become competitive. The simple sidewalk stands then evolve into huge brands; the animation surrounding this is excellent, by the way.

Once they've become successful conglomerates and adults they realize they are unhappy because their innocence is gone.  The kids' original idea of a fresh, handmade product has long departed. They're nostalgic for it. (And, yes, doesn't this sound both like Don Draper's conundrum and a presentation he'd make to a brand? The man whose job it was to sell happiness seemed always to be chasing happiness.)

Eventually the two video characters see the light and return to their roots. Simplicity wins the day, with a bit of love thrown in. We'll avoid adding more details, except to say the video's ending involves a food truck, an unseen moment of procreation and several haircuts.

The problem with this otherwise excellent video is its meaning. You could argue that E. coli and the other food-borne issues that have unspooled Chipotle are anathema to the video's message of simplicity. It's nice to think of your local Chipotle as a little shop, churning out simple, fresh food by hand. In fact, recent events have made such a concept less likely.  While Chipotle’s goal is to make its new food-safety regime the envy of its competitors, this has forced the brand to make its product slightly less fresh. For example, tomatoes are no longer sliced at Chipotle restaurants. Instead they are pre-sliced at central kitchens, sealed and sent to Chipotle locations. It's possible Chipotle is doing the same with other ingredients, such as lettuce.

In addition, Chipotle is a big business, not a kid's lemonade stand. True, Chipotle began as a simple idea of preparing fresh food quickly. Yet now it's a large, publicly traded brand that must answer to a slew of stakeholders, not to mention stockholders.

The way we interpret the video, the evolution of the two small juice stands into large enterprises isn’t viewed as a positive. A loss of innocence and diminishing control of the product, expertly depicted in the video, likewise are negative themes. Of course, these things come with growth, which, as we know, is arguably the main goal of a capitalist enterprise. It’s not inconceivable that viewers may interpret part of the video's message as a condemnation of growth. Others may see it as a longing by a large company for a simpler way of life.

So, what is Chipotle saying with this video? Is it a way to change the conversation? A distraction? Perhaps it's a cry for help from a brand that wants to return to its simple origins, prior to the E. coli outbreaks. As we said above, take 4 minutes, click on this link to see the video, then discuss. The way we see it, there’s not a definitive answer.