What A Burrito Can Teach Us About Branded Content

In 1993, the fast food industry was dominated by the big three: Wendy’s, Burger King and the immovable object known as McDonald’s. Why then would anyone want to enter this industry and take on not one, but three behemoths?

It’s a good question, but one Steve Ells, Founder and CEO of Chipotle doesn’t really have to answer anymore. His vision for an alternative to the burger wars has been fully realized. Not only is Chipotle’s stock trading for over $400 a share, it’s literally shaped the American palette, introducing a whole new cuisine and ethos to eating.

From the DIY assembly system to the open kitchen to the fresh, vibrant ingredients you can see and smell, Chipotle created a totally new experience for Americans and redefined the competitive fast food landscape.

All of which was, and still is, a direct extension of the company’s belief system. To quote the company itself:

Food with integrity is our commitment to finding the very best ingredients raised with respect for the animals, the environment, and the farmers.

That’s a unique statement to make in an industry often criticized by health experts, slow-foodies, animal rights activists, and a handful of mayors.  But what truly sets the company apart today is not necessarily its farm-raised pigs or commitment to local sourcing. It’s the stories Chipotle is telling and how it’s telling them.

See, Chipotle hasn’t just climbed to the top of the fast food chain armed with a distinct point of view. It’s become one of the most innovative branded content storytellers. This hasn’t happened overnight – it evolved from traditional corporate videos to original broadcast programming.

Let’s take a closer look.

A traditional corporate documentary, “How It All Started,” uses a combination of voice over, interview, food prep shots, and time-lapse photography to tell the company’s origin story. It begins with Steve Ells talking about how his original plan was to create a revenue stream with Chipotle in order to fund the bigger dream of opening a high-end restaurant.

He touches on the success of his simple model, how little attention he pays to the fast food industry, and his experience with Niman Ranch, a leader in humanely raised beef and pork. It’s an expected piece of content, but one that leverages the very plain-spoken voice of its visionary leader.

A few years later, Chipotle struck up a partnership with Creative Artists Agency (CAA) to create original branded content that would speak to the company’s beliefs about food and farming in general. This partnership produced the first of two animated short films entitled, “Back To The Start.” To the heartfelt soundtrack of Willie Nelson covering Coldplay’s hit single “The Scientist,” the short film tells the story of a farmer embracing industrial farming practices until one day he realizes his mistake and turns toward a more sustainable future.

Though it was only distributed on social media channels, over 8 million have watched the YouTube video, and Willie Nelson’s version of the Coldplay song became an instant hit on iTunes. But what’s even more striking about this approach to branded content is that there’s only one mention of the Chipotle brand – and only those who watch the entire 2:21 minute video will see it.

The second animated short Chipotle produced with CAA was even more ambitious. This time, it was not the story of a simple farmer – they took on the bigger industrial food complex. In “The Scarecrow,” our scarecrow-protagonist works at Crow Foods Incorporated. It’s a dark and dystopian look at the future where corporations that claim to be all-natural and organic are using harmful practices to mass-produce food. Near the end of the story, our sad and depressed scarecrow realizes he can do something about it, and begins to collect the food he grows at home to brings to market where he sets up a stand and creates simple, fresh and authentically all-natural food for sale.

In this case, it’s a basket of tacos (wink, wink). Like the first animated short, the film is set to a Fiona Apple cover of a well-known song, “Pure Imagination,” available on iTunes, and extended its reach with an animated game for download. So far, over 12 million have watched the YouTube video.

And recently, Chipotle broke new ground again by launching a live-action series on Hulu called Farmed And Dangerous. Described as “an original comedy series that explores the outrageously twisted world of industrial agriculture,” the series marks a new step for companies exploring branded content.

Instead of buying time during popular shows to communicate its message, or creating videos they hope will go viral, Chipotle is going straight to the source by creating serial content that looks, sounds, and feels like a traditional TV show.

In all three examples of modern branded content, Chipotle is making the bold choice to not tell its corporate story. Instead, it’s telling stories that communicate a point of view; a point of view that has clear heroes and clear villains, and clearly aligns with Chipotle’s mission.