Mexican Grill has long been all-in on the fad of marketing its food as more “sustainable” or “responsible.” Its latest marketing video has generated buzz and millions of YouTube views. Called “The Scarecrow,” the video shows a cartoon character that is dissatisfied with a large food factory and decides to strike it out on his own, setting up a small shop serving handpicked food.
If Chipotle has one thing, it’s imagination. But it must think consumers don’t have a brain. Marketing must have truth behind it, or a brand is placed in a very dangerous spot.
There’s a false dichotomy about food production, a narrative driven by an alliance of anti-corporate, organic, animal-rights and environmental activists. According to this narrative, there are two kinds of food production. There are so-called “factory” or “industrial” producers. They’re bad, because they are large corporations, and their food is supposedly less healthy for humans and the environment. On the other side — the “good” side — there are smaller firms serving organic food that’s locally grown; free of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs; and so on.
Chipotle is taking advantage of this caricature of agriculture offered by others. But in doing so, it is putting its brand at risk by relying on perceptions that don’t imitate reality.
For starters, Chipotle itself doesn’t meet its own cartoonish standards. Far from a small stand, Denver-based Chipotle is a big corporation that operates a chain of more than 1,500 restaurants and uses McDonald’s distribution network. Far from some Mexican grandmother’s kitchen, its tortillas and chips are produced in factories. Some of its food contains GMOs. And far from consistent, Chipotle is willing to use “conventional” meat from animals raised with antibiotics if there’s a supply shortage of so-called “natural” meat.
Watch Chipotle's "The Scarecrow"
Slapping farmers in the face, spreading misinformation and committing hypocrisy—that’s Chipotle’s “Food With Integrity.”
Despite the marketing that tries to create a wedge between “good” and “bad” agriculture — or “good” versus “bad” retailers — there’s nothing wrong with modern agriculture that utilizes technology.
Consider the idea of “no added hormones” meat. Many farmers use implants to promote growth, and it’s true that steak from a cow that was given hormones to promote growth will have some estrogen, for example. But this estrogen is measured in nanograms. The Food and Drug Administration requires a withdrawal period for hormones — and antibiotics — before an animal can be slaughtered.
goes antibiotic free
The trace amount of estrogen found in some beef is akin to a few drops of water in a swimming pool. Birth control pills — and cabbage, believe it or not — both have estrogen levels 1,000 times higher than that found in a serving of “non-hormone-free” beef, according to animal scientist Jude Capper.
In fact, you’d need over 10 million more cattle to produce the same amount of beef if you took away modern technology that promotes efficiency. Perhaps Chipotle can tell us how “sustainable” that is.
Chipotle has also admitted that more animals can die when they are in antibiotic- and hormone-free systems, and that crop yields can be lower for organic produce, requiring more land to produce the same amount of food. Is that sustainable? Are animals raised without antibiotics and hormones responsibly raised?
Watch Panera's video for antibiotic-free chicken
Insulting farmers and misrepresenting agriculture is the trendy thing to do in urban circles and among the New York Times crowd. But farmers seem to be putting up with it less and less.
St. Louis-based Panera Bread Co. recently touted in an ad campaign that some of its poultry was raised without the use of antibiotics. But it went further, calling the use of antibiotics “lazy.” Big mistake.
Antibiotics are used widely in animal agriculture as a preventive measure. But on farms that don’t do this, what’s a farmer supposed to do if his bird gets sick? Is treating a sick bird with antibiotics “lazy”?
After an online outcry from farmers, the 1,700-plus Panera chain retreated from its campaign with egg on its face.
One of the easiest ways to destroy a brand is to have hypocrisy or falsities underlying it. Restaurants have plenty of ways of marketing and distinguishing themselves — taste, service, freshness, price, menu diversity, and so on. Those that dabble in deceptiveness, however, are setting themselves up to get burned later. Or in Chipotle’s case, to eat crow.
Richard Berman is president of Berman and Company, a Washington, D.C.- based communications firm. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News.
Do you agree or disagree with Berman’s opinion? Weigh in using the comment section below.