Under fire: What to do when your sustainability story is questioned

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Under fire: What to do when your sustainability story is questioned

If you’ve eaten at Chipotle, you know their sustainability story. If you haven’t, take a tour of their website, and you’ll learn about how vegetables are grown in healthy soil, how they’ve removed GMOs from their menu, how they’ve taken a stand against growth hormones and antibiotics in milking cows, and how they’re allowing pigs to “root and roam” instead of being caged up. Chipotle has done a great job of committing to this approach, developing the message around it and building their brand on it. It makes for a strong and easily recognizable differentiator in the industry.

It also creates a set of challenges – the kind of challenges that come when any company puts a stake in the ground and has to hold itself accountable to the stand they’ve taken. In reality, taking a stand on sustainability is no different than taking a stand on quality or innovation. In order to maintain any brand position, you have to defend the core attribute upon which it’s built. So this is a story about doing exactly that – it just so happens it’s a story about defending a claim of sustainability.

The first challenge arose around Chipotle’s “Pork Protocol.” After discovering that one of its major pork suppliers was not raising its pork to Chipotle’s animal treatment standards, they pulled the pork from their menus, creating a carnitas shortage. It took them nine months to get it back on the menu at most of their restaurants.

Though I’m sure it was painful, Chipotle did exactly the right thing here. Their efforts reinforced to the public that their brand is pure – that their commitment to the humane treatment of animals and sustainable farming practices isn’t just some nice-sounding ad copy. It’s real. And their actions spoke louder than words, demonstrating transparency and a commitment to fix anything out of alignment with their brand message of “food with integrity.” As a consumer, it also tells me they check the veracity of their own story, and since they were being proactive, it further strengthened my belief in their commitment.

You may have seen the second challenge the company is dealing with: the “Chubby Chipotle” campaign. The Center for Consumer Freedom, a food industry lobbying group, has developed a campaign asserting that eating two Chipotle burritos a week could cause someone to gain 40 pounds.

A spokesperson from Chipotle labeled these ads a smear campaign, and I’m inclined to agree with them (the campaign is run by a guy who built a career lobbying on behalf of food companies against health initiatives). However, it raises an interesting issue that Chipotle will need to deal with: although Chipotle is making ethical sourcing claims, not better health claims, Americans generally assume they mean the same thing – that no GMOs, antibiotics or hormones means the food is healthier, and they can eat it guilt-free without worrying about pesky things like calories.

The campaign continues to lob new challenges at Chipotle. The most recent ad claims Chipotle’s tofu contains more hormones than meat from animals given hormones.

And other than the initial response we mentioned above, Chipotle has been silent. We think that’s the right approach – Chipotle doesn’t need to go on the defense because a bully decided to pick on them. However, Chipotle does need to go on the offense and address the very real perception that I can eat one of their burritos for lunch, believing I’m making a healthy choice, when in reality I’ve just consumed my entire recommended caloric intake for the day.

Chipotle does post calories on its website and actually lets you see, as you’re building your burrito, for instance, how many calories you’re adding per item selected. But they can and should go further by offering smaller portion options or predetermined/prepackaged lower calorie options – and then they should boldly feature these options in their ad campaign in the same way they talk about sustainable farming and the lack of antibiotics and hormones.

It’s all part of defending their brand value proposition as it’s understood in the eyes of the actual brand owners – consumers.

Burrito image by Tales of a Wandering Youkai via Flickr

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Posted on

October 21, 2015

About the Author

Jim Lyza

Jim is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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