Crisis Communication Case Study: Chipotle Mexican Grill

Chipotle hazmat suitChipotle Mexican Grill is known for their innovative, fast-casual and farm-fresh food. They’re definitely proud of their supply chain, so much so that marketing ads focus on their naturally-raised and organic ingredients. Their mission statement is even Food with Integrity.

These facts are ironic considering their recent struggles with food safety. Outbreaks of not one, but three food-borne illnesses and pathogens (Salmonella, E. coli, and norovirus) in Chipotle restaurants have resulted in numerous hospitalizations and fatalities. Their long-standing rhetoric of food integrity stands in contrast with the reality of bacteria making their way into your burrito!

The epidemic began in August 2015 at a Simi Valley, California location. A sick employee infected 234 customers, but the outbreak was over by the time health officials confirmed a link. In Minnesota, 64 customers ate tomatoes with a side of salmonella. The worst case came in November 2015, when more than 140 Boston College students (including half the men’s basketball team) picked up the highly contagious norovirus from their campus Chipotle. In total, almost 500 people in 9 states became sick from Chipotle’s food according to public health officials.

the apology

Biohazard ChipsThe effects were immediate once health authorities posted information. Sales and stocks were tumbling, and Chipotle saw their first quarterly decline as a public company. Steve Ells, the founder/CEO of Chipotle, made an appearance on the Today show on December 10 for a televised apology. Ells acknowledged the situation, apologized and expressed concern for the suffering customers. He announced a comprehensive food-safety program that would “exceed industry norms” and stated that Chipotle had recently hired two food-safety consulting firms. However, he admitted they still did not know which ingredients to blame. Produce that’s hard-to-clean and eaten raw is considered high-risk. At Chipotle, that’s the tomatoes, lettuce, and cilantro—the same stuff that gives that signature fresh taste.

“The fact that anyone has become ill eating at Chipotle is completely unacceptable to me, and I am deeply sorry,” Ells wrote. “As a result, we are committed to becoming known as the leader in food safety, just as we are known for using the very best ingredients in a fast-food setting.”

About a week after this apology, Chipotle placed full-page newspaper ads across the country pledging to do better. Ells also promised customers that Chipotle would be “the absolute safest place to eat.” Following these actions, more E. coli outbreaks were reported in Kansas, North Dakota and Oklahoma.

Lessons learned

In February 2016, Chipotle implemented strategies to win back its customers. They used an abundance of caution in closing down company-wide for an “employee food safety training meeting” on the morning of February 8. The brand also launched their giveaway campaign, called the “Chiptopia Rewards Program.” 5.3 million users downloaded coupons from Chipotle’s app for a complimentary burrito, and 50% of the coupons were redeemed.

Chipotle hazmat suitChipotle was absent online amidst this crisis, offering no public statement on its website or social channels. Their Facebook and Twitter pages only had responses to angry customers. Meanwhile, their website had pages devoted to their supply chain sourcing. No official channel acknowledged the crisis as Chipotle faced seven lawsuits and an investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In January 2016, they finally updated their website with a “Focus on Food Safety” page addressing how the crisis happened, explaining the viruses and featuring more details of their new testing methods.

in review

I feel Chipotle could’ve had a stronger online presence throughout the crisis. Their social media channels were merely used as customer service tools. I also can’t help but wonder how they could emphasize their fresh ingredients while skipping over food safety basics. It doesn’t matter how fresh or healthy their food is if it’s been contaminated! Finally, I wouldn’t have stated to press that Chipotle would be “the safest place to eat.” This generalization is impossible to guarantee, and the CEO looked foolish as he was proved wrong yet again.

Mark Crumpacker, the Chipotle chief creative and development officer, said “There’s nothing worse from a trust perspective. This is not the kind of problem that you market your way out of.”

In conclusion, Chipotle was honest, authentic and quick to put their CEO and communications team on damage control with this situation. They did a good job changing the conversation with their Chiptopia rewards program, which was necessary to win back wary customers. It’s unfortunate that their marketing and branding centered so heavily on their food production before this crisis, as I feel it only made the irony of the situation even more tempting for media coverage.

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