retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

In a masterful mix of music, medium and message, the big winner at the 54th Grammy Awards was … Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Yes, British songstress Adele swept the six major recording categories on Sunday night, as expected. But it was a two-minute-20-second Chipotle television commercial promoting sustainable farming that had Twitter buzzing and led to online headlines such as “Chipotle steals Grammy spotlight.”

The acclaim comes on the heels of last week’s Slate article calling Chipotle the new Apple, comparing founder Steve Ells and the fast casual chain’s signature burrito to the legendary Steve Jobs and the iPhone.

While many (including myself) consider that comparison a stretch, Chipotle certainly stands out for delivering a quality product, impressive revenue growth (23% increase in 2011) and share value (up 50% on the year and 500% over five years).

Equally important, its commitment to using more natural ingredients – “Food with Integrity” – including pork and beef for burritos and tacos has resonated with consumers and plays out daily on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, iTunes and its website.

Which brings us back to the animated ad, entitled “Back to the Start.” The soundtrack features country music veteran Willie Nelson covering the haunting ballad “The Scientist” by the alternative rock band Coldplay. It portrays a family farmer switching to “factory farming” – with his pigs and cows being penned, injected with antibiotics, processed on assembly lines and trucked into the city in 18-wheelers. One minute and 26 seconds into the clip, the dejected farmer realizes he must “go back to the start” and reverses course, freeing his animals and happily sending his product off in a small Chipotle Mexican Grill truck. The final credit urges watchers to download “The Scientist” on iTunes, with 60-cents from each 99-cent download going to The Chipotle Cultivate Foundation, which has donated more than $2 million toward initiatives that support sustainable agriculture, family farming, and culinary education.

“Back to the Start” debuted last year online and in 10,000 movie theaters. As of Sunday, it had been viewed 4.4 million times on YouTube. As of yesterday, that number skyrocketed past the 5 million mark.

Additionally, the ad was tweeted 10,000 times during the Grammy broadcast, including several that found the farmer’s plight more moving than the show’s tribute to the late Whitney Houston. The song had been downloaded on iTunes 25,000 times prior to Sunday night.

The Grammy ad was also Chipotle’s first foray into national TV advertising. It’s impossible to predict how the reaction will impact sales in Chipotle’s 1,230 (and counting) outlets across the nation. But it does reinforce the company credo that “Good food is good business.”

And that is certainly the case for the other runaway fast-food success story, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, proving consumers are willing to pay a premium for quality fast food. A similar up-and-comer is the New York City/D.C. salad assembly line chain, Chop’t, which boasts a food philosophy of “Better is Better.”

The "good food" story is one that retailers can share in, if they actually make the commitment to the product.  That means sustainable sourcing, flavorful preparation, and understanding that food can be a differential advantage rather than a lowest common denominator offering that doesn't deliver.

To borrow they key line from “The Scientist”: “Nobody said it was easy.”

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