First it was E.coli and now norovirus. With that, Chipotle, the once darling of Wall Street and consumers looking for a healthier fast food option, has a serious brand problem.
Earlier this year, more than 50 customers in nine states became ill with E.coli after eating at Chipotle. Yesterday, 80 students from Boston College became ill with norovirus after eating at a local Chipotle.
This is a huge problem for a brand that has built itself on sourcing and serving the best ingredients available.
To be fair, Chipotle is not alone in having to deal with food-borne illnesses. McDonalds had an outbreak of E.coli in 2014 due to suspected undercooked hamburgers. In 2006, Taco Bell had a E.coli outbreak due to some tainted lettuce.
But neither McDonalds or Taco Bell claim to be in the business of “…finding the very best ingredients we can—with respect for animals, farmers, and the environment…” You see, Chipotle’s point of differentiation – best ingredients – is exactly why this is a much larger problem for Chipotle than any of its competitors. Failing on food safety is the antithesis of what the Chipotle brand is supposed to be about.
What Chipotle is saying.
Yesterday, at the Bernstein Consumer Summit, Chipotle CEO Steve Ells told investors, “We have the desire to be the safest place to eat.” Think about that statement in terms of the Chipotle brand. Shouldn’t being the safest place to eat have been part of finding the very best ingredients? It is akin to an airline saying, “We have the desire to have the fewest plane crashes.” It is a table stake. It is part of what every restaurant has to do. Food safety should be a given.
For a company whose brand is about the quality of its food to now say that, after E.coli and norovirus outbreaks, that they “have the desire to be the safest place to eat” is almost comical. It should never have been an issue.
The best brands have a sense of forethought. Meaning, because of what the brand stands for, the brand should be a guide for what the business should plan for, now and into the future. Take a brand like Servpro whose brand promise is to return things the way they were before, like the event never happened. From a business perspective, what does that mean? It means that Servpro must have all of the right tools, processes and methods to respond to any kind of disaster. It also means that the tools, processes and methods it uses don’t make things worse or hurt anyone.
The outbreaks and Chipotle’s response to them illustrate that Chipotle has not completely used the power of its brand appropriately. It either has lacked conviction or complete understanding of what its brand promise should mean to its business and now its brand may be in serious trouble.