If you're feeling underwhelmed with the airy wisdom of a quote from Oprah on your Starbucks cup first thing in the morning, you can always head over to Chipotle (NYSE:CMG) for lunch, and grab some wisdom from its packaging. As was widely reported last month, the popular fast-casual chain now features literary musings on its bags and cups from contemporary authors, including acclaimed short-story writer George Saunders, and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, among others. The project, "Cultivating Thought," was conceived by author Jonathan Safran Foer, known for vibrant novels such as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Everything Is Illuminated. Foer personally pitched the idea to Chipotle CEO Steve Ells, who seems to have embraced the concept.
Chipotle's implementation of Foer's idea is an effective example of the company's willingness to separate itself from competitors, and defy accepted wisdom in its industry. Typically, as food chains scale up in size, they tend to rely on outside experts for every bit of copy that consumers encounter.
The result is often an advertising agency's idea of the language and tone that will resonate across the most preferred demographic in a company's customer base. Take this classic piece of inspirational babble from Burger King, found on packaging promoting the company's "Have It Your Way," campaign:
You have the right to have what you want, exactly when you want it. Because on the Menu of Life, you are "Today's Special." And tomorrow's. And the day after that. And... well, you get the drift. Yes, that's right. We may be the King, but you, my friend, are the almighty ruler.
Wrapped up in the King's cynical and vapid hipster language, this may come off as patronizing to many customers. Of course, Burger King recently traded in its 40-year old "Have It Your Way" slogan for the grammatically confusing "Be Your Way." The company apparently missed a certain irony in its dog whistle to rugged individualists: you can now "be your way" while ordering the "Big King," BK's knock-off of the Big Mac.
Don't "be your way," be yourself
Chipotle's $18.5 billion market cap belies the fact that it is still a relatively small company, with just $3.2 billion in annual revenue. Because Chipotle doesn't franchise, unlike many of its competitors, it's also small in terms of locations, with roughly 1,600 total stores in operation at the end of 2013. Yet, CMG's diminutive size is a virtue in that it allows the company to be itself. Chipotle doesn't market itself to the entire available population, as major chains feel impelled to do. The company understands that, instead of pandering to what it believes its customers value, it can advertise its own values and take some risk. Witness the edgy Farmed and Dangerous video satire that Chipotle produced, which takes on the industrial farming complex, and is promoted online and in restaurants.
Chipotle also comprehends that contemporary consumers like to be respected. They will pay a slight premium above fast food for tasty burritos made from fresh and responsibly sourced ingredients. They don't want to be reduced to a slogan, and they're not likely to stroll in and out of restaurants in a kind of jingoistic gusto, thinking "Be Your Way," or "I'm Lovin' It." Foer, who edits, as well as contributes to, Cultivating Thought, grasps the potential that food packaging has to transcend sloganism:
An imperfect start to a worthy project
When Cultivating Thought was unveiled last month, Chipotle caught some flack for not featuring any Mexican or Latin American authors, in general, in the initial run of ruminations and vignettes. This criticism has some merit; after all, the company bills itself as "Chipotle Mexican Grill." It's nice to see the stylized Aztec wall friezes in some Chipotle locations; why not carry this desire toward authenticity forward, and feature some prominent Mexican or Mexican-American authors in the next round? Chipotle responded to criticism by pointing out that the current group of 10 writers had been culled from an initial pool of 40; among that pool were some Latin American writers who declined to participate. The company relayed that it would consider a "Latino" author in the next phase of the project.
Initial missteps aside, Chipotle deserves credit for incorporating literature into its restaurant experience. As the company evolves, we may see even quirkier experiments that speak to values, risk, and authenticity. Chipotle has grasped a truth that will help it grow, and also indirectly increase its bottom line. Often, customers hunger for more than a heavily stuffed, if delicious, steak burrito.