Can Chipotle CEO’s Transparency Instill Brand Loyalty Among Customers?

It’s been a most interesting year for Chipotle, as it has attempted to recover from an E coli outbreak that impacted 60 people who ate at the massively popular burrito chain, and this past summer’s first-ever loyalty program (Chiptopia) that launched July 1 and runs through September. Restoring brand loyalty has, and will, be at the forefront for Chipotle founder, Chairman, and co-CEO Steve Ells.

As a result, Ells wants to be as transparent as possible to the company’s loyal customer base. In light of that commitment, Ells wrote a letter on the company’s site, outlining a strong focus on food safety regulations, preceded by an admission of failure.

“Since I opened the first Chipotle more than 23 years ago, we have strived to elevate fast food, by using better ingredients which are raised responsibly, without synthetic hormones, antibiotics, added colors, flavors or sweeteners typically found in processed fast food,” the letter says. “And I’m very proud of that. But in 2015, we failed to live up to our own food safety standards, and in so doing, we let our customers down. At that time, I made a promise to all of our customers that we would elevate our food safety program.”

Ells listed the “important changes” Chipotle has made and provided comments on each one:

1. Supplier Interventions
Our suppliers have implemented additional, proven steps that eliminate or dramatically reduce food safety risks before the ingredients ever reach Chipotle.

2. Advanced Technology
We are pioneering advanced technologies including using high pressure to eliminate any possible food safety issues without changing the flavor of the ingredient.

3. Farmer Support & Training
We are providing funding and training to local farms so they can meet our elevated food safety requirements.

4. Enhanced Restaurant Procedures
We deployed robust, industry leading new food safety procedures in our restaurants including new handling procedures for produce, citrus and meats as well as comprehensive sanitizing protocols.

5. Food Safety Certification
We require that our managers and field leaders are certified in food safety by a nationally recognized institution—a first for any national restaurant chain.

6. Restaurant Inspections
We dramatically increased the number, and intensity, of restaurant inspections—both by independent auditors and our internal teams.

7. Ingredient Traceability
We implemented an advanced electronic tracking system to ensure that ingredients can be monitored and quickly removed from our supply if necessary.

8. Advisory Council
We created an independent advisory council comprised of industry experts who continually review our procedures and provide insight into new food safety advancements.

Our commitment to you is that every day, in every restaurant, we will serve food that is safe, delicious, and made with ingredients raised with care.

I never could have imagined that one burrito restaurant would become the company it is today. On behalf of our entire team, we look forward to continuing with you on our quest to make better food accessible to everyone.

What does this all potentially mean for Chipotle’s customer base now and in the future?

Loyalty360 solicited commentary from some of its Association members.

“The Chiptopia loyalty program was Chipotle’s much needed attempt to recapture its core customer after several high-profile food safety incidents,” CrowdTwist CMO Geoff Smith told Loyalty360. “Since the brand is a healthy and food-conscious alternative to traditional fast food, it will take a sustained commitment to rebuild customers’ trust and the foot traffic it once enjoyed. I am sure the summer-long Chiptopia program was successful in bringing in lost customers, including me. Even though Americans tend to have short memories with respect to food safety incidents, I would not be surprised to see the program be reincarnated into a longer-term initiative to recapture lost market share.”

Jon Siegal, Vice President and General Manager of Client Relationships, Stellar Loyalty, told Loyalty360 that Chipotle has to overcome two critical challenges.

“First, regain customers’ confidence in its food safety, and second, entice them to eat at Chipotle with greater frequency,” Siegal said. “The two are intrinsically linked. By being open and forthright about its safety program, Chipotle draws on the brand values that attracted customers to it in the first place. But it’s going to take more than that, and more than a three-month rewards program, to motivate customers to embrace the brand again. A key value proposition of the Chipotle experience is the ability for customers to combine food ingredients to their individual tastes. In addition to reassuring customers about the quality of the food preparation, Chipotle needs a loyalty initiative that capitalizes on its brand value by being personalized for each customer just like its food.” 

Meanwhile, Carrie McIlveen, U.S. Director of Marketing for Metia, offered her perspective on the current Chipotle situation.

“While it has been an embarrassing episode for Chipotle, it seems to be making serious efforts toward customer concerns and rebuilding customer loyalty,” McIlveen explained to Loyalty360. “Steve Ells’ initial quick and personal response shows he cares. And now he is following through with his promise to elevate its food safety programs by addressing what caused the food poisoning and then make sure it doesn’t occur again.”

But, McIlveen noted, Chipotle officials must maintain its diligence when it comes to customer expectations.
“It is important that Chipotle continues to listen to its customers to help grow brand loyalty and nurture customer relationships moving forward,” she added. 

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