The Chipotle brand needs help for customers to return

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.

Chipotle brand
The Chipotle brand is in need of serious repair.

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.

Even McDonalds burgers are in trouble

McDonalds Burgers. If you follow this blog at all, you know that I have written about the fast food category quite a bit (and that Stealing Share has experience in this market). Most of the major fast food chains are losing market share, seeing weak and negative same-store growth and are consistently trying to out maneuver each other with new menu items. (Cheetos Chicken Fries from Burger King anyone?)

McDonalds burgers
Fewer people are eating McDonalds burgers

Recently, I read an article from the Wall Street Journal about McDonalds recent sales declines. This article was different from the litany of business articles about McDonalds struggles because it specifically looked at the its staple product – the burger.

Fewer people prefer McDonalds burgers

For a while now, McDonalds burgers have suffered from a number of quality issues, like dealing with the whole pink slime thing from a few years ago and the fact that burger chains like Five Guys and Smashburger are doing pretty well with better and fresher ingredients.

McDonalds has decided that now would be a good time to take a look at the quality of McDonalds burgers again.

At this point, however, this seems futile. McDonalds has already lost and I think its leaders know it too. Proof of this is in its current expansion of its all-day breakfast options. As wildly successful as McDonalds burgers has been, they are dinosaurs. McDonalds recent inability to adapt to the changing wants and needs of the consumer is proof of that. If McDonalds really wanted to compete (past tense) then it should have made a better Big Mac a long time ago, before its customers left the brand.

Now, even if it does come up with a better burger, it will still need to convince people that it is truly better. That process takes a lot of money and a lot of time. Unless McDonalds can fundamentally take a look at itself more harshly, there is not enough of either to fix what’s wrong with McDonalds burgers.

Extra Crispy Sunscreen does what for KFC?

A few days ago, KFC announced that it would sell a brief run of Extra Crispy Sunscreen that works like regular sunscreen with the added benefit of smelling like extra crispy fried chicken.

Extra Crispy Sunscreen
Is Extra Crispy Sunscreen mean Yum Brands and KFC have lost their minds?

At first, this just seems like a mindless marketing tactic to build on the current campaign starring George Hamilton. I knew it was a thinly veiled attempt to generate social media activity and get some play in publications. I passed it off as sophomoric and lacking any real ability to gain any sort of preference.

Until I read the press release.

It reads like most other releases on promotional gimmicks, carefully weaving in the details of the gimmick with how it is supposed to relate to the brand. However, as I read the last paragraph, I was dumbfounded. It is a quote from Kevin Hochman, chief marketing officer of KFC US. It reads:

“While I’d love to tell you our customers have been asking for this, they haven’t,” Hochman added. “In fact, I’m pretty confident nobody ever asked for this. It’s just some crazy idea we dreamed up.”

Extra Crispy Sunscreen doesn’t help the brand.

I have been a very outspoken critic of how Yum brands have lacked much considered thought in its brands. I’ve been hard on the company because it’s my job to find issues with brands and develop a strategy to fix them.

But now it appears I haven’t been too hard on them at all. Yum and KFC have no idea where they are going from a strategic direction as evidenced by the statement, “…It’s just some crazy idea we dreamed up.”

Make no mistake, out of the box thinking is how I operate, but that thinking has to be tied to an overarching strategy. KFC’s foray into skin protection has no strategy – and the quote proves they know it.

There is nothing about Extra Crispy Sunscreen that ties people to the brand meaning of KFC. Sure it may tie them to the nostalgia of the brand, it does not make consumers more loyal or apt to try KFC for a meal. It generated some buzz, but it’s buzz about the sunscreen, not KFC’s brand.

If I were an investor, I would be worried about what was going on in that C-suite. In quick service, activity without accomplishment is costly, especially for brands that are already struggling.

Burger King should just change its name already

The internet has been abuzz the last few days with Burger King’s unleashing of their new menu item Mac n’ Cheetos. This new food item (and I use that term loosely) is a congealed mess of processed macaroni and cheese with a deep fried, Cheetos-flavored breading. This comes on the heels of some franchisees unleashing the Wopperito not to mention Doritos Loaded and chicken fries.

Burger King
Mac ‘n Cheetos from Burger King just make no sense.

Rather than menu experiments, these food mashups are becoming the norm for Burger King. How can you be the king of burgers selling fried mac & cheese and chicken strips?

It is pretty obvious to everyone other than those running Burger King that the brand has really lost its way. I can’t even figure out what it is the chain is trying to do anymore with its brand. I assume its hope is that the Mac n’ Cheetos will drive people to the restaurants in hopes they will buy something else. But at $2.50 for 5 pieces, if you add a burger and a drink to that you are likely paying $10 or more for a single meal. I can think of a number of burger places where I would rather spend $10.

Where the brand of Burger King stands now.

The reality at Burger King is that this brand is just flapping around in the breeze with no direction or vision. That is, unless BK changes its name.

Burger King has fallen so far from where it once was. Given its recent menu introductions, it should change its name to something like Fair Food. It has become a restaurant of gimmicks, akin to the latest craze at the State Fair. Perhaps we will soon see fried butter and turkey legs.

Brand is never about a gimmick as, once the gimmick wears off, you have to find another one in a never-ending cycle. Good brands know that, to be powerful and incite loyalty, they have to be fiercely consistent, true and unfailing. A brand should be more like a lighthouse rather than a glow stick.

Unfortunately for Burger King, it is looking more and more like a fair stand instead of taking a stand for its brand.