Woe is the Chipotle brand. Its third-quarter results showed net income plummeting nearly 95% versus last year and same store sales declining more than 20%. The food safety issues that plagued the chain last year continue to haunt it as once loyal customers are fearful of coming back.
Publicly, Chipotle continues to laud its industry leading food safety program and praising store efforts to create an excellent guest experience. Chipotle has also doubled its marketing efforts and is running its first television ads since 2012.
However, I don’t think Chipotle has fully grasped that its failure is not a business one but a brand one.
How the Chipotle brand can fix itself.
Prior to its very public food safety catastrophe, Chipotle was a Wall Street darling. It touted fresh and sustainable menu offerings, made to order for each customer. The Chipotle brand was so tightly tied with the freshness of its food that it was positioned as the anti-fast food establishment.
So what did it expect when people got sick from its food? Any connection that Chipotle made with the customer quickly vaporized. The expectation with food being fresh is that it is safer than at other places. Being non-processed gave consumers a certain security blanket.
Jump ahead a year later and consumers still feel like they were lied to.
The Chipotle brand is in serious need of repair. Shortly after the food safety incidents, it launched the before mentioned industry leading food safety program. If your brand is supposed to be about fresh and non-processed, why didn’t Chipotle have such a program in place already? The simple answer is that Chipotle never placed the bar high enough to fulfill its brand promise. Food safety to them was non-processed.
This is the rub. It is facing an almost insurmountable climb to get consumers to come back based on the laurels of its past. Chipotle appears to be simply telling consumers, “Come back to Chipotle, this time we mean it!” Customers are wisely not buying it.
As painful as it may be, Chipotle needs to revaluate its brand in an effort to reconnect to its lost customer base. They’re not just going to come back to the brand that has already failed them with a safety program. Consumers need an emotional reason to return.