You can’t go wrong with an exploding cow. Or so you’d think, anyway. That was surely the sentiment around the boardroom table when Chipotle Mexican Grill approved its latest rhetorical assault on our food system, a $250,000-per-episode miniseries called Farmed and Dangerous. Despite Chipotle’s sparse presence in Canada, branding wonks here follow them closely. The company has scored hit after viral hit with its “food with integrity” strategy, launched with the weepy 2011 Willie Nelson-sings-Coldplay YouTube video, “Back to the Start” (see bottom video). YouTube view counts are catnip to marketers, and sanctimony has been good business for Chipotle.
Considering the business it’s in, Chipotle’s strategy seems as improbable as it is audacious. Restaurant marketing should make you feel hungry, not guilty, but Chipotle positions itself on a claim of conscientious supply-chain management. And up to now, it has indeed won fans for gently confronting us with awkward questions about our food.
Farmed and Dangerous, though, takes this guilt trip to another level. Seizing on the current anti-corporate zeitgeist, they’ve personified a sociopathic monolith called “industrial agriculture,” and then invited us to watch in horror as it commits atrocities in the pursuit of profit. One of these results in the aforementioned exploding cow, a gruesome consequence of being fed petroleum pellets. The archetypes in the story seem so grimly familiar it feels almost true.
But somehow, this finally crossed a line for me. Instead of taking on its competition with product superiority, Chipotle invented a fictional villain and used the false comparison to claim moral superiority. There is, of course, no such monolith as “industrial agriculture”; agriculture is a far more complex business than that, and full of difficult compromises. Such a glib, mean-spirited characterization—reeking as it does of propaganda—also seems disingenuous coming from a $2.7-billion public company, no matter how conscientiously it manages its supply chain. Chipotle may in fact be well intended, but its advertising presents it as an exemplar of exactly what it claims to abhor. Past a certain point, ethical food doesn’t justify unethical marketing, regardless of your YouTube view count.
Besides being creepy, their strategy may not even prove to be that smart in the long run. Chipotle admits it can’t currently meet its own supply-chain standards, with, for example, 20% of its beef not conforming to the brand’s antibiotic and hormone-free ideal. And that’s according to them; Chipotle’s home market doesn’t actually regulate claims like this, so the company has to police itself. That makes it a sitting duck for aggressive competitors looking to undercut their credibility. It also makes Chipotle a big, juicy target for a society more intent on devouring the reputations of hypocritical corporations than burritos. In these chippy, finger-pointing times, there is no more vulnerable real estate for a brand to occupy than the moral high ground.
Chipotle is already starting to get gleefully taken apart by pundits and satirists, as moral absolutists inevitably are. Even on YouTube, where they posted a trailer for Farmed and Dangerous in late January, commenters saw right through what the brand was trying to do, and often had a more nuanced view of the social issue besides. It looks like Chipotle might have finally overplayed its hand.
If so, the ultimate casualty will be Chipotle’s own message and, unfortunately, even credit for the good things it has done. The uncomfortable truth is that the world gets better in small, morally complicated increments, and you can’t contribute if you’ve been ridden out of town on a rail. In the final analysis, more progress will likely be made by brands like Patagonia or even Starbucks, who may brag insufferably about what they’re doing right, but stop short of claiming moral purity or demonizing others. In the branding business, being morally superior is like being cool: it’s the first thing you should strive for, and the last thing you should talk about.
Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award