When Chipotle Mexican Grill named Chris Brandt as CMO in 2018, the fast-casual brand was at a crossroads. It had weathered years of food contamination incidents and a 2017 data breach, and needed to turn around the ship.
Brandt had plenty of experience leading up to the new gig. As an EVP and chief brand officer at Bloomin' Brands, he worked on brand positioning, consumer insights, loyalty and digital marketing, and previously oversaw the development of Taco Bell's mobile app as CMO.
That mix of experiences positioned him well for the Chipotle post, and the past year has demonstrated how the brand's mobile and digital focus — from loyalty to social media strategy — helped revive business. Revenue jumped 14.6% year-over-year to $1.4 billion in Q3, with digital sales swelling 87.9%.
"When I started back in April of 2018, we felt like the brand had been invisible," Brandt told Mobile Marketer. "We wanted to make it more visible, more familiar and certainly more relevant in culture."
Going digital to win over younger consumers
For a fast-casual chain like Chipotle, it's no secret that connecting with millennial and Gen Z consumers is key to growth. To court these fickle customers, Chipotle worked to make strides in digital channels, which represented $257 million in sales last quarter, and as CEO Brian Niccol said on the Q3 earnings call, "We're knocking on the door of digital becoming $1 billion business."
"Half of our consumers are Gen Z or millennials," Brandt told Mobile Marketer. "When we set out to be more visible and more relevant, we knew we had to do it [...] in the digital space because that's where they live."
For Chipotle, that meant deploying several mobile-centered initiatives this year.
In May, the brand ran an SMS-based campaign during NBA broadcasts, giving away up to $1 million-worth of free burritos when announcers said the word "free" in game coverage. Not only was it an innovative use of messaging, but a "hack" of NBA sponsorship — which belongs to competitor Taco Bell.
"We've fostered this idea that we need to experiment and we like to be first."
Under Brandt, Chipotle has also become an early brand success story on TikTok, first teaming with influencer David Dobrik on a challenge that urged users to post videos of themselves flipping its food packaging lids. Deftly using the app's viral video power, the campaign generated 110,000 video submissions and 104 million video starts in its first six days. While last year's free guacamole promotion on National Avocado Day caused the app to crash, this year's #GuacDance challenge on TikTok snagged 250,000 video submission and 430 million video starts during a six-day run — becoming TikTok's highest-performing branded challenge at the time.
Being successful on mobile platforms, especially ones like TikTok, takes a specific mindset, according to Brandt.
"We needed people on the business that were really agile and innovative thinkers," he told Mobile Marketer. "We've fostered this idea that we need to experiment and we like to be first."
Keeping consumers engaged with a loyalty app
After beta testing Chipotle Rewards in 2018, Brandt helped guide the brand in rolling the loyalty program out nationwide in March, when it quickly saw significant growth. App downloads increased nearly fivefold after a month live, and it registered its 1 millionth member in just a week. App downloads and daily active users surged, and Chipotle reported 7 million loyalty members by Q3 2019. The rewards rollout built on other digital efforts under Brandt as well: Chipotle became the first restaurant brand to debut a custom emoji on Venmo as it surprised users with deposits ranging from $1 to $500.
"We certainly weren't the first company to have a loyalty program, so we had to do something that breaks through, especially with that younger consumer," Brandt said. The brand came up with the concept of "the only thing better than free money, is free Chipotle" and went from there.
In terms of what's coming down the pike, Brandt indicated that experimentation will continue to be key, on mobile and elsewhere, during a particularly tumultuous time for marketers.
"The CMO has the lowest tenure of any of the C-suite, and that makes some people more risk averse," Brandt said. "I think that means you better try some different things so you're relevant and always leaning forward."