Early on in Chipotle chief executive officer Brian Niccol’s tenure, he made a comment that took some by surprise. “This brand needs to be leading culture, not reacting to it,” he said in April 2018, less than a month after officially joining.
Niccol went as far to call Chipotle “invisible,” which is an interesting label for a 2,400-unit chain that essentially reinvented a category. But he wasn’t off base, either. Chipotle’s mission was transparent—purpose driven, ingredient forward—and so was its recovery story following 2015’s food-safety crisis. Yet was Chipotle speaking the language of its customers? That’s something Niccol set about addressing.
Last May, Chipotle brought in Tressie Lieberman. The chain’s VP of digital and off-premises spent two years with startup Snap Kitchen as CMO, but clocked close to five with Yum! Brands, holding digital roles at Pizza Hut and Niccol’s former stop, Taco Bell. Lieberman led an incubator at the Mexican giant focused on rapid prototyping, e-commerce, loyalty, and Slackbot ordering. She helped bring Pizza Hut’s first-in-category iPhone app to market.
Notably for the Chipotle move, though, Lieberman nurtured a strategy at Taco Bell that saw the chain transform into a lifestyle icon, especially among youth culture.
It’s to the point now where it’s easy to forget where Taco Bell stood nearly a decade ago. In 2011, it faced a public relations nightmare when a customer filed a lawsuit alleging that the chain’s taco mixture was more filler than beef. The suit was withdrawn, but Taco Bell’s image absorbed a blow.
Niccol was the brand’s marketing innovation chief at the time (he became president in 2013 and CEO in January 2015). During that run, and following the PR flare-up, Taco Bell worked its way into a hip concept that connected with a fresh generation of guests well beyond late-night menu items. That included hiring interns to run social media, devising a taco lens on Snapchat, and pushing Taco Bell’s products through Instagram via user-generated content. It set the stage for some of the offbeat creative you see today, like clothing lines, hotel pop-ups, weddings, and movie-like ads.
Taco Bell become the first brand on Snapchat under Lieberman’s watch and created a petition for the taco emoji. She also spearheaded the chain’s mobile ordering platform and social blackout campaign that surged Taco Bell to a top 20 paid app within its first day of launch.
Now, about a year and a half after joining Chipotle, it’s safe to say the fast casual is far from a cultural bystander.
As for what Chipotle changed to reroute the narrative, you can really start with tone. Chipotle remains serious about its food and core principles, Lieberman says, but the brand has taken on a lighthearted persona.
“We want to have fun with our customers,” Lieberman says. “That opens up opportunities.”
One example she references is Chipotle’s TikTok challenge. In August, the brand crushed internal records by selling more than 802,000 sides of guacamole for National Avocado Day. Adding fuel to the sales fire was Chipotle’s #GuacDance on TikTok, inspired by Dr. Jean’s viral guac song. It turned into the social platform’s highest performing branded challenge ever to run in the U.S., driving more than 250,000 video submissions using the specific hashtag, resulting in nearly 430 million video starts during a six-day run.