Few brands inspire fanaticism in fans quite like Chipotle. In every group of friends, there’s always at least one person willing to sing the praises of the Mexican grill chain. To reward this loyal fan base, and win back customers scared off by food safety concerns, the brand launched Chiptopia, a temporary loyalty program that wrapped up last weekend.
 
The question now (and over the next several weeks) is whether or not the program was a successful first step into the world of loyalty programs.
 
Facing concerning fiscal numbers in the wake of outbreaks of E coli and Norovirus at several locations, Chipotle announced Chiptopia, the 23-year-old chain’s first attempt at a loyalty program. Prior to this, the company had shied away from implementing any kind of loyalty offering beyond its exclusive Farm Team program.
 
The program utilized a tiered structure, giving customers rewards for reaching Mild, Medium, and Hot statuses during the period of July 1 through Sept. 30. The top prize, a catering order valued at up to $240, required burrito-lovers to rack up 11 visits (limit one per day) in each of the three months.
 
According to comments from a brand spokesperson, CNBC reports that 85,000 customers reached the tier needed for the catering reward, resulting in $20.4 million of free food being given out, assuming all customers redeem. The same article notes that 3.6 million users participated in the program, which crucially provided the chain with customer info about purchasing habits and contact information.
 
As of Monday morning, the first business day since the program concluded, Chipotle’s stock was up more than seven points, a jump of 2%. This is likely due to the expected announcement of a permanent loyalty program, which will build on the engagement sparked by Chiptopia.
 
Unfortunately, the program may have missed the mark on one of its most important objectives: Improving brand perception after the food safety issues.
 
As noted by Business Insider, the chain’s YouGov BrandIndex perception rating stood at 9.4 (on a scale from -100 to 100) on the program’s July 1 launch, and saw a surprising drop to 6.8 by late September. This drop casts a shadow over the results of the program, as the chain’s most deeply-seeded issues have yet to be addressed. In other words, free burritos can only earn so much goodwill if customers still don’t trust them to be safe to eat.
 
The adjustment back into a world without Chiptopia may prove to be yet another hurdle for a brand that has seen more than its fair share over the past year. Customers driven by the notably generous program (customers who earned the top prize also received nine free entrees along the way) may drop off without the incentive of free food that was relatively easy to earn.
 
The end of the Chiptopia program carries with it a slew of new questions: Did the temporary program bring back customers who had left the brand, or just those that endured through the health scares? Will those new customers stick around without the proverbial burrito on a stick to provide incentive? And, perhaps most importantly, what kind of permanent loyalty program might the brand be cooking up to replace it?
 
Only time will provide these answers, but one thing is for certain: The results of the Chiptopia program proved that through it all, the brand will always have a solid base of devoted fans.

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