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Marketing and Comms
Chipotle Launches Assault on Big Food with Short Film, and There's More to Come

Chipotle keeps sticking its neck out for "sustainable," locally produced food — now with an animated short-film attack on "Big Food" and with the promise of more expansive and aggressive efforts to come.

"The Scarecrow" is a 3-1/2-minute film that Chipotle Mexican Grill released online last week that depicts what the brand calls "a dystopian fantasy world" in which "all food production is controlled by fictional industrial giant Crow Foods. Scarecrows have been displaced from their traditional role of protecting food, and are now servants to the crows and their evil plans to dominate the food system."

"Dreaming of something better, a lone scarecrow sets out to provide an alternative to the unsustainable processed food from the factory" — an alternative that looks an awful lot like the Chipotle business model that emphasizes local sourcing and food as natural as possible.

"It's certainly a more pointed look at the issues in industrial agriculture and food production than we have done before," Chris Arnold, Chipotle communications director, told brandchannel. He noted that the brand released its first animated polemic, "Back to the Start," more than a year ago. "We get more comfortable taking stronger and stronger positions and we learn that there is pretty considerable interest in these issues when people encounter them."

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"The Scarecrow" is produced by Chipotle and created by Academy Award-winning Moonbot studios. Set to a Fiona Apple remake of the song "Pure Imagination" from the film classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, "The Scarecrow" also is available in a game that, as Chipotle said in a release, "allows users to visit the animated world and correct the wrongs committed by" Big Food in the animated film. There will be up to one million buy-one-get-one offers to consumers who successfully play the game.

"We're making these serious issues more approachable to people who are pretty new to them," Arnold said. As such, he said, the new initiative "isn't a tool to drive people to our restaurants; we have advertising and local marketing for that. This is an initiative about bigger-picture values."

For that reason, everything associated with "The Scarecrow" also is light on branding, especially for branded content. The only mention of Chipotle is its brand logo at the end of the film, although there is a moment during the actual piece that lovingly depicts a fresh pepper in the scarecrow's garden which looks remarkably like the one in Chipotle's logo.

Chipotle also plans "The Scarecrow" as only the opening gambit in a new offensive on this issue which also will include a series of four, TV-show-length Big Food-busting dark comedies, called "Farmed and Dangerous*,"* that Chipotle will put online, according to USA Today.

Yet Chipotle's increasing preachiness on its business model is likely to draw reactions from the conventional-restaurant business — perhaps even McDonald's, which once owned the chain. For one thing, while "The Scarecrow" depicts sad-eyed cows trapped in tight containers before heading to slaughter, the reality is that Chipotle's meat is just as dead as McDonald's.

And Arnold made an excuse for the very real fact that Chipotle lately has been shorting many customers on the "all-natural" sourcing of its beef as it rides out a temporary shortage of the purer stuff it favors.

"Does it create issues around a film and game like this? No," Arnold insisted. "What's depicted in 'The Scarecrow' is really where we aspire to go. And through all the progress we've made in moving to naturally raised meats [etc.], we've never professed to being perfect. The commitment we've made is to constant improvement. There will be bumps along the way, but things like 'Scarecrow' are really revealing of where we want to go."

Chipotle isn't the only "conscious" company that has had to pull back on its sustainable claims. Ice cream brand Ben & Jerry's, known for its sustainable ethos, was forced to remove its "All Natural" claims from its packaging in 2012 after a lawsuit. The Unilever-owned company maintains several initiatives, including a hormone-free milk policy and fairtrade ingredients. The company is also a big proponent of the non-GMO stance, and is working towards being completely GMO-free.

This post first appeared on brandchannel on September 12, 2013.