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Marketing and Comms
Can Chipotle Learn About Food Integrity from McDonald's?

McDonald’s Canada’s experience is evidence that social media is pushing transparency mainstream, and that for them the risks have been worth the rewards of increased customer trust.

This post is part of a series written by MBA and MPA candidates in Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course, examining the role of marketing in advancing sustainability across all sectors.

For more than a decade, fast casual restaurant Chipotle Mexican Grill has positioned itself as delivering something different — food made from real, high-quality ingredients — what it calls “Food with Integrity.” The company’s continued rapid growth over the same period shows that the public agrees. Chipotle’s commitment to food quality, reinforced by compelling multimedia marketing campaigns, has attracted many new customers and created a loyal following. Now two parallel national trends may pressure Chipotle to up its food integrity game.

The first trend is a shift in consumer concerns about food. According to a 2012 Edelman survey, the number of US consumers who want to know where their food comes from is going up: 69 percent now want to know where it is grown, and 65 percent want to know where it is processed. The second trend is an increase in mainstream media skepticism of Chipotle’s food integrity campaign. At issue is not the tastiness or superiority of its burritos to fast-food alternatives, but the credibility of its food quality claims. Attention came to a head last September after the launch of the company’s latest animated video, a critique of the industrial food system called “The Scarecow.” The New Yorker, Fast Company and Mashable all accused the company of various degrees of hypocrisy and manipulation. Even comedy video site Funny or Die chimed in, hosting a slickly produced parody called “Honest Scarecrow,” that now comes up in online searches right next to the original.

A response from Chipotle may be expected soon, since it is a committed food leader as well as a savvy marketer. Meanwhile, if it is still searching for inspiration, it might do well to shift its attention abroad, and check out what is going on at McDonald’s Global — in Australia as well as just across the border in Canada, out of the US media spotlight. Since 2012, these separate McDonald’s units have each been conducting unprecedented and successful experiments in food transparency 2.0, in response to domestic concerns about their food quality. A few highlights are:

  • A 6-month TV campaign introducing an app called Track my Maccas (the Australian term for Big Mac), allowed customers to track a just-bought meal back to the farmer’s geo-tagged field.
  • An ongoing series of videos where McDonald’s Canada answers consumer food questions, takes the viewer behind the scenes of a suppliers, with one of supplier’s employees as your guide. The videos’ unpolished feel and often shocking level of detail leaves an authentic impression that has made them go viral across Canada.
  • The most recent video, which aired in January during the SuperBowl, shows how McNuggets are made, and was called the “new marketing standard“ by Canada’s Financial Post.

It was, as Joel Yashinsky, head of marketing for McDonald’s Canada told AdNews Australia, “a little bold to show what happens behind the scenes but we were comfortable with being transparent. [Customers] need it from a brand like ours and they need it from any brand.” Granted, it may have been more than a little bold, but it seems to be working, because since the first videos were released, perceptions of food quality have reportedly risen 16 percent.

Whether Chipotle can see itself going in this direction, only time will tell. Meanwhile, McDonald’s Canada’s experience is evidence that social media is pushing transparency mainstream, and that for them the risks have been worth the rewards of increased customer trust. Chipotle may gather the courage to go transparent if it thinks the majority of consumers do not expect perfection, just honesty.

As an insightful reader put it in a comment under a critical post in Mother Jones: ”It’s not about tearing down. It’s about honesty. Chipotle’s efforts are laudable, but they are still guilty of making themselves out to be better than they actually are.”