Rain on ‘The Scarecrow’ (Editorial)

(Sept. 27, 2016) More than half a year after a string of outbreaks of foodborne bacteria sickened hundreds at several of its stores, Chipotle Mexican Grill, once a “fast-casual” powerhouse, is still struggling to recover.
The company’s stock lost 45 percent of its value in the aftermath of the outbreaks and among the mixed opinions on Wall Street, many analysts don’t see the burrito chain returning to the highs it reached last year any time soon, if at all.
Peter Saleh, senior restaurant analyst for the financial services firm BTIG, recently called for Chipotle to cut labor costs and drop its “food with integrity” marketing strategy to help hasten the turnaround.
The company has largely utilized what’s known as “cause marketing,” promoting a message or agenda over specific products.
It promoted the growing practices, animal welfare practices and ties to local producers it sought as a key reason to walk through the doors for a meal.
That strategy also included videos and commercials misrepresenting and denigrating the modern agriculture industry.
There were the animated shorts, “Back to the Start” and “The Scarecrow,” which painted modern food production with the typical and lazy brush of a cold, soulless monolith. Then there was the web video series “Farmed And Dangerous,” a satirical farce of fictional agricultural giant “Animoil” and its plans to revolutionize the industry through the use of PetroPellet, a petroleum based animal feed that instead seemed to be making cows spontaneously explode.
By the numbers of Internet views, the campaigns did incredibly well. But members of the agricultural and vegan communities lashed out at the video, accusing it of mocking farmers and using messages about veganism for its own meat-filled burrito marketing.
Even before the series of outbreaks, Chipotle’s cause marketing wielded a double-edged sword with the possibility the campaign would cut into business by alienating those who didn’t buy into the cause.
Then the company’s food with integrity tagline was called into question altogether differently when last year the restaurant chain was stricken with three major food safety incidents, sickening 510 people in 14 states and humble pie became a key menu item as the chain retooled its sanitation measures and issued a barrage of free burrito coupons to lure suspicious customers back; a program, Saleh and others have said isn’t working well.
Responding to Saleh’s call for Chipotle to drop its marketing strategy, company spokesman Chris Arnold said moving away from the food ingredients it wants to serve is a “nonstarter.”
“That is the essence of our business, and has driven our success for years,” Arnold told Business Insider recently. “Moving away from that to realize short term cost savings would not make any sense at all.”
The company is right to stick to its guns in buying the food it wants to make the products it wants to sell. But if its outlandish blasts continue against how most of the food in the country is grown in an effort to boost its own bottom line, Chipotle will be no better off than it is now.
The lesson is simple and one we all — in agriculture, politics, the media, everywhere — should heed.
You can’t truly build yourself up by tearing someone else down.