What Restaurant Brands Can Learn From The Chipotle Crisis

Hungry for a lesson in crisis management? Fast-food giant Chipotle recently launched a colossal advertising campaign designed to lure customers back to stores, including 21 million direct-mail free-burrito coupons. The hope? That you’ll forget about the chance of contracting E. coli somewhere between asking for extra corn salsa and tucking into an order of chips and guac.

Unless you’ve been eating your burritos under a rock, you probably know that the company has been plagued by plummeting sales since the last quarter of 2015, when outbreaks of E. coli and norovirus sickened dozens of people in 14 states. Below, we take a look at how Chipotle responded to the crisis by outlining some important tenets of crisis management.

Be prepared. Chipotle would have been well-served by a specific, actionable crisis management plan. Instead, they stumbled forward with a series of tone-deaf reactions and quickly became the butt of a host of social media jokes. “#Chipotle is giving out free burritos? Its (sic) like when an ex reaches out to ‘touch base’ but you just don't look at them the same way anymore,” joked comedian Cyrus McQueen on Twitter.

Own the crisis. In the aftermath of the outbreaks, Chipotle’s CFO blamed sensational media headlines and implied that the CDC was moving too slowly on declaring the outbreak over. The brand would’ve been better served by immediately owning up and outlining specific ways they would make their food safer for customers.

Say something — fast. One of Chipotle’s biggest mistakes was failing to publicly address the outbreaks quickly enough. After a crisis, it’s important for brands to formulate a timely, proactive response. Releasing too little information makes customers suspicious.

Your customers are smart. Treat them that way. Chipotle’s brand strategy has always relied on the principle of straight talk and “food with integrity.” Instead of crafting a straightforward response to the crisis, Chipotle continued to run a series of pun-heavy ads. In the immediate aftermath of the outbreaks, billboards headlined “Guac-amore” felt tone-deaf and disingenuous.

Be clear, direct and consistent. Chipotle should have been clearer about their plan to attain food safety and avoid future outbreaks. Messaging was muddled, leaving customers uncertain of what protocols were being put in place to protect them. Moreover, after touting newly implemented food-safety measures early in the year, the chain is now scaling some of those back, according to the Wall Street Journal. Flip-flopping on their crisis response makes the chain look uncertain or — worse — manipulative. 

What Chipotle Is Doing Right

The good news for Chipotle is that they appear to be handling the problem seriously, not just whitewashing it. The chain is taking genuine steps to rectify food safety issues, like dicing vegetables in a commissary to ensure consistent results. And they’re holding off on price increases, even though investing in added food safety procedures (and additional marketing) will cost them money. They also hired E. coli and listeria expert James Marsden as executive director of food safety and closed all of their stores for a day in order to hold a company-wide food preparation training. In addition, their website now features a food-safety explainer detailing how they’re making their food safer. 

The other silver lining: Chipotle has been forced to become more transparent — a good thing for any brand. If their new processes really help them become “safer than ever,” we suspect their efforts will pay off.