Twenty years after Chipotle slung its first burrito from a pint-size shop in Denver, Colorado, it has become an international tour de force: An undisputed leader in the conversation about sustainably raised food (particularly when it comes to bringing the message to the masses), the company has an uncanny ability to release powerful marketing bits that go viral–a testament to the emotional and provocative connection the pieces make with their audiences.
This week’s entry: The Scarecrow, a Moonbot Studios-produced video and iOS game that takes a direct shot at the processed-food industry while tying sustainably raised food back to Chipotle (video after the jump). And this time, Chipotle’s chief marketing officer Mark Crumpacker isn’t shy about its intent–he says it has very specific goals, some of which are fairly ambitious.
“What we hope to accomplish is to have people care ultimately a little bit more about where their food comes from and how it’s prepared,” Crumpacker says. “And we’re doing that by piquing curiosity.” The approach, he explains, comes out of years of trying to get people to think about a complex and unpleasant problem, making the connection between the dollar menu and cheap–but ultimately harmful–production processes. The burrito monger settled on entertainment-based education, crafting videos like this one and creating Cultivate, a food and music festival that brings together farmers, chefs, eaters, and thought-leaders for a sensory experience that imparts lessons about eating.
While Chipotle has long relied on this type of marketing to promote its goods, the most powerful example emerged two years ago when the company released Back to the Start, which took on industrial pork production via an animation set to a cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” performed by Willie Nelson. That video has racked up 7.5 million views to date, a feat Crumpacker says was something the company “kind of stumbled into. It was meant to be an intro to our loyalty program, and it became a viral hit.”
The first goal of The Scarecrow, Crumpacker says, is to open people’s eyes to the reality of the processed food world, which is inherently out of whack. “We find that when you ask people what processed food is, they don’t really know,” he tells Fork in the Road. “We’ve been working on trying to help people understand that.”
The video uses symbolism to point to some specific animal-welfare issues, including sub-therapeutic antibiotics administered to chickens to promote growth and the harsh conditions of industrial dairy production. Set to a Fiona Apple cover of the Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory soundtrack’s “Pure Imagination,” it’s harrowing, with a particularly tearjerking moment right around 1:35.
There’s a happy ending, though: The scarecrow returns to his farm, grows vegetables, and heads back to the city to serve food (that looks an awful lot like Chipotle tacos).
The game mimics the storyline of the movie, Crumpacker says, with four levels that lead the player through rejecting the processed-food system before coming back to Chipotle, where the main scarecrow character sells food. It’s a call, of course, to get into the restaurant, something the marketing exec says was missing from the last video the company produced.
But earning some new fans isn’t Chipotle’s only desired consequence: The company hopes campaigns like this raise public awareness to help tackle some of the most serious food issues facing us today. Right now, says Crumpacker, that’s the constant use of antibiotics in animal raising. “That’s the most pressing issue to us right now,” he says. “There are multiple consequences. There are obvious public-health issues, because you risk creating new antibiotic-resistant diseases. There are environmental issues that come with animals living in confinement. And there are issues with eating the food.” For proof, he points to the recent scandal with KFC in China, where the chicken chain had to stop selling poultry after traceable levels of antibiotics were found still in the food.
And Chipotle has a firm stance on how it would like that problem to be remedied: “We would like to see sub-therapeutic antibiotics banned by the government,” says Crumpacker.
Lofty as that sounds, Chipotle has had success in making real change within the system: “We buy a lot of our pork from Niman Ranch, which is the amalgamation of independent pork producers who agree to raise animals by the Niman protocol,” he explains. “The animals live outdoors or in deeply bedded barns, they eat vegetarian feed, and they’re never given antibiotics. When Steve [Ells, Chipotle’s founder] started buying pork, there were only a few farmers in that network. As we started buying pork from them, there was enough demand to bring in more farmers. Now there are several hundred. So pork farmers who were raising pork conventionally switched. On the ground, that’s real, meaningful change.”
Scarecrow (the game) is available for download via the iTunes store.