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7 tips to tell your brand story the Chipotle way

inside chipotle

What are the steps to storytelling success? Chipotle and others shared specifics on what works.

1. Have a clear position

When Dominic Losacco came onboard as VP of global marketing for Moe’s Southwest Grill in July, he set out to further push Moe’s brand story to build an emotional connection—and brand loyalty—with consumers. “The first step for me is to have a clear brand position, what you stand for,” he says. Having a specific definition to execute against helps tell a more effective story, he says. For Moe’s, that means incorporating its desire to “celebrate originality” into its messaging. The irreverent spirit of that mantra is what the Moe’s name literally stands for—an acronym for Musicians-Outlaws-Entertainers. “Moe’s should always have that irreverent tone, because that’s part of the brand’s history.”

For 31-unit Sweetgreen, co-founder Nicolas Jammet wanted the healthful fast casual to have a clear purpose. “It’s not just about the transaction or the food you were being served. It’s about more than that. We want to celebrate the healthy lifestyle and how food fits into that,” he says. For more on the elements of Sweetgreen’s brand story, click here.

But that positioning doesn’t always have to be a lifestyle statement. “It’s about being true to what you really are and executing a solid brand positioning,” says Wetzel’s Pretzels CEO Bill Phelps, who admits it’s a challenge to get people to care about a snack food like pretzels. “What we believe is you have to be consistent for what your brand really is, with one message about who you are. Don’t try to be something you’re not.” 

2. Keep the story simple

“Consumers are inundated with information today, so the simpler the message, the more powerful it can be,” says Jammet. “For us, every touch point, whether it’s experiences (such as the chain’s music festival or community outreach) or the launching of a seasonal menu, tells our story.”

At Wetzel’s, simplicity doesn’t just resonate, it sells. When the QSR revamped its digital menu board, doing away with text in favor of pictures of five best-selling items and an animation of its Wetzelmen mascots creating its product, it saw sales jump. “It’s incredibly simple and so clear to the customer,” says Phelps.

3. Consider how consumers see the brand

Before retooling Moe’s marketing, Losacco’s predecessor conducted internal and external research to see where the concept fit, both in the marketplace and in consumers’ minds. Knowing how an audience sees the brand helps tailor the message, says Losacco. “There are some brands out there that need to reeducate the consumer on their history, and there are other brands that can focus on telling where the[concept] is positioned and headed … It depends on where the brand is with consumers and in the marketplace to know which tactic will work.”

It’s also key to be clear about what consumers’ opinions mean. Wetzel’s conducted focus groups to understand how customers viewed its brand. “If someone is going to Chipotle, they are thinking about the purchase. Thinking about food and integrity. When buying a pretzel, it’s an impulse decision. We understand that. So we make it a simple, fun experience,” says Phelps. That ease is part of the brand picture Wetzel’s is trying to paint on its menu board. “It’s a fun, hip brand that’s fresh,” he says. 

4. Stand for something

“It’s not about history; its about ethos,” says Chris Arnold, Chipotle's communications director. Chipotle’s ethos, he says, is to change the way people think about and eat fast food. The core of that is respect and knowledge of farmers, animals and the environment. “Having that ethos gives us a lot of compelling stories to tell,” he says. And it does so through YouTube videos, music events and in-store materials such as essays on its beverage cups. “While we have a great many customers who don’t know all of the details of our food culture, we have a growing percent to whom those things really matter. It engenders great loyalty.”

5. Build trust

“Be really careful with everything you tell customers,” says Jammet. “The best brands are the ones that are built on trust, the ones that can really build trust with the consumers.” For Sweetgreen, that means transparency. “Customers have really come to trust where we get our food and what we do,” says Jammet. Sweetgreen menu boards list every ingredient and producer, and guests also can look into the kitchen to see food prep, he says. But, “trust is earned in drops and lost in buckets,” he cautions. “It takes a long time and a lot of factors to build trust. You can mess that up with one swoop.”

6. Strike a balance

Chipotle’s marketing efforts are threefold: local marketing, traditional “top-of-mind” advertising and its “Cultivate” program that puts out vision-oriented stories, such as its viral Scarecrow YouTube video and mobile game, that may or may not be branded. “We get a lot of attention for [programs] that fall into the “Cultivate” bucket, but in terms of marketing spend, those three are pretty equal,” says Arnold.

He admits, though, that overall, Chipotle is a fairly small marketer. The category average, he says, is to spend 5 to 7 percent of revenue on marketing; Chipotle spends about 1.75 percent.

Moe’s, too, tries to strike a balance between traditional food-driven advertising and storytelling. “Because of the way the media landscape is now diversified, you have an opportunity with customers to tell your story in different places,” says Losacco, though he cautions that operators must be cognizant that the message fits the medium. Moe’s hasn’t gone completely away from TV and radio, but it’s become more engaged in the social media space. The key, says Losacco, is to make sure all of your messaging, wherever it lies, works together to build a brand story and emotional connection.

7. Be adaptable

The consumer landscape is constantly changing, says Losacco. “Brand positioning isn’t necessarily something you change on a daily basis, but you always have to adapt and evolve how you communicate.” Over the last few years, Moe’s has been more tactical in its communications strategy, especially as it has gotten more involved in social media messaging. It’s learned, for example, to be diligent and strategic when posting. “The frequency of brand posts or tweets is really critical … make sure it is timely and relevant to consumers’ daily lives.”

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