Chipotle Mexican Grill, also known simply as “Chipotle”, has come a long way since founder Steve Ells opened the first restaurant in Denver, Colorado nearly 30 years ago.
A near-instant success, Ells’ fast-casual dining experience features a simple menu and fresh ingredients — which has drawn in customers by the millions.
But what exactly did Chipotle do differently when it comes to brand management, and what can we learn from its success? Let’s take a deep dive into one of America’s most popular fast-food chains to see if we can discover its secret.
Going Extra Large
Source: Market Watch
Did you know that Chipotle was only ever meant to exist as a stepping stone to opening a fine-dining restaurant? However, following its huge success, Ells decided to ditch his original plan and look for more investment opportunities. This led to him opening several more stores throughout Colorado over the following years.
By 1998, Chipotle was operating in more than 16 locations throughout the Centennial State. That’s when it caught the eye of McDonald’s executives who decided to invest in the company — helping it achieve tremendous growth.
By 2005, the number of Chipotle restaurants operating all over the US had risen to an astonishing 500. And in January 2006, Chipotle made its Initial Public Offering with its share price set at $22. Although already inflated due to high demand, the share’s value doubled by the end of the first day.
But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses for Chipotle. In 2015, the company received negative PR when several restaurants were linked to E. coli outbreaks. However, Chipotle counted its losses, made changes, and quickly bounced back.
Today, Chipotle operates 2,900 restaurants in the United States, Canada, UK, France, and Germany. And things are still on the up-and-up for this well-loved brand, as its share price peaked at $1,944 in September 2021 — up almost 50% in less than a year.
The Recipe for Success
Chipotle didn’t just rise through the ranks of fast-food chains by chance — there’s a reason it’s still considered a long-term investment opportunity by experts, even though its stock price has almost reached $2,000.
Many factors have contributed to its success. Let’s explore some of them in more detail.
1. Quality Above All Else
Steve Ells’ original vision was to provide customers with fresh food made from high-quality ingredients. According to the company’s website:
“Chipotle was born of the radical belief that there is a connection between how food is raised and prepared. It may be the hard way to do things, but it’s the right way.”
Serving food sourced and produced ethically and naturally has been a key brand value for Chipotle since day one. While the company has grown tremendously since the early 90s, its food has remained fresh and organic. Artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives aren’t part of the equation.
With more and more consumers both aware and wary of the adverse effects of fast-food consumption, customers appreciated and supported Chipotle’s initiative — opting for its healthy organic menu items over other cheaper alternatives.
2. Customization is Key
One-size-fits-all approaches to business don’t always lead to ideal customer experiences. Although Chipotle’s menu is small, customers can choose each and every ingredient that goes into their meal.
Having a small menu and allowing maximum customization is a great business model for many different reasons, including:
A limited menu translates to lower costs, quicker delivery, and increased profit margins. Chipotle purchases a smaller variety of supplies in bulk at lower prices by striking better deals with suppliers.
Having fewer ingredients to work with makes quality control much easier. Because Chipotle only stocks fresh ingredients that customers quickly consume, the risks of food spoilage are minimized.
A smaller menu also means better and quicker service. Introducing too many items to a menu is a recipe for disaster — orders get mixed up and employees make mistakes. Chipotle has none of that since everything that goes into your burrito, bowl, taco, or salad is right there in front of you. You pick your ingredients, you oversee the filling process, and off you go.
Consistency is also great for business. Chipotle’s ingredients menu doesn’t change much, which means that customers know what to expect. There’s no need to design clever and flashy advertisements to promote new items, trials, or promotions.
With Chipotle, what you see is what you get. The menu might be small, but the different possible combinations of meals you can assemble are practically endless.
3. No Franchises
It’s difficult to believe that Chipotle has grown this much without taking advantage of a franchise model. Even today, all of the company’s stores are corporate-owned, which means better management, higher food quality, and more efficient supplier deals.
Sure, franchising might help Chipotle grow faster, but that would make it harder to maintain the brand’s unique culture. The company wouldn’t be able to oversee the hiring process, quality control would suffer, and the Chipotle experience just wouldn’t be the same anymore.
4. Minimalistic and To-The-Point
You know what minimalism is if you’ve ever walked into a Chipotle restaurant. The brand’s signature visual identity blends industrial materials (e.g. stainless steel, exposed piping) with warm natural colors and ample use of plywood.
Everything is stripped down to the basics, aligning perfectly with Chipotle’s culture and philosophy.
Unlike other major players in the fast-food industry, you’re not constantly bombarded by distracting clutter. There are no huge signs begging you to come inside and try x value meal or y limited discount. This toned-down attitude proves that Chipotle is confident in its offerings — it doesn’t need to grab the customer’s attention with gimmicks, bright colors, and in-your-face advertising.
Chipotle doesn’t spend too much on traditional advertising either. They relied on word-of-mouth advertising for many years, using their fresh, great-tasting products as their primary marketing tool. Nowadays, the company’s advertising strategy leverages social media platforms like TikTok — since many of its consumers are Millennials and Gen-Z.
How to Elevate Your Brand the Chipotle Way
Source: Contagious Magazine
Although unexpected, Chipotle’s rise to glory shouldn’t be attributed to chance. It all boils down to some really great brand management, and there are quite a few things we can learn from its success story.
1. Be authentic and have a clear message
If you want to create a brand that customers trust and respect, you need to have a clear brand message ready to ship from day one.
Chipotle took many of the elements that defined fast-food chains and elevated them by carving its own path. Where McDonald’s, Burger King, and other established giants promised quick, easy food at the lowest possible prices, Chipotle stood out by focusing on the use of fresh, responsibly-sourced ingredients.
Yes, Chipotle, too, aims to serve food quickly and at reasonable prices, but ensuring everything is as fresh and tasty as possible is the number one priority. The message aligned perfectly with Ells’ vision, and Chipotle stuck to it.
2. Stand for something
Chipotle isn’t the only fast-casual chain that’s serving great food. Although dedication to fresh produce forms an essential part of the brand’s message, the company’s ethos goes way beyond that.
Chipotle’s goal is to completely change the way people eat and think about fast food. Just because your burrito was made in two minutes and cost $6 doesn’t mean it can’t be healthy — as well as hormone and GMO-free.
The mission is to cultivate a community of consumers who care about their health, are environmentally conscious, and are aware of Chipotle’s sustainability initiatives.
Having good intentions just won’t cut it. If you want to attract loyal followers, you’ll have to find ways to prove you stand by your company’s core values.
3. Build trust
You can’t build a successful brand if you’re not honest and transparent with your customers. By visiting Chipotle’s website, you can quickly learn everything you need to know about what goes into your food: how and where it’s produced, why it’s good for you, as well as complete nutritional information about every last ingredient.
And when it’s time to order, everything is prepared in front of you.
Chipotle knows how to play to its strengths. They have a clear picture of their target audience, and all their marketing efforts are designed to build trust.
Since they do target a wide range of people, they are, for example, active on a variety of social media platforms. They run frequent events, and there’s even a loyalty club that leverages personalized marketing, increasing engagement with the brand as a result. Any fan can join and unlock access to unique and specialized offers.
4. Learn to adapt
While you want to be consistent with your core message and values, you should be willing to adapt your strategy during turbulent times. A good example is Chipotle’s quick recovery from its food-safety crisis in 2015, as described by CMO Chris Brandt.
Instead of cleaning house by firing all of its agencies and sticking to the original “reliably-sourced” message (which was already being picked up by other fast-food chains), Chipotle decided to follow a slightly different path.
By drawing inspiration from its core values, the message shifted to “food that you can feel good about eating.” This small — yet significant — change in direction resonated with fans, contributing to Chipotle’s strong comeback.
Chipotle's focus on simplicity and clarity has really paid off. It's made a big impact on US pop culture over the last decade and has become one of the first things people think of when they're in the mood for Mexican food. And their financial results speak for themselves.
While it's not particularly flashy, Chipotle’s expert brand-building has done exactly what it needed to: build trust with customers and help the business to grow. There's a lot to learn from this burrito behemoth — what lessons will you apply to your own brand?