how chipotle can bounce back from its reputation challenge (photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/z0/) how chipotle can bounce back from its reputation challenge (photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/z0/)

Chipotle is in the middle of a reputation crisis. Following a series of food borne illnesses, critics and fans alike are questioning the quality and safety of their food products. This, after Chipotle has spent years growing a reputation as a sustainably sourced and even healthy option for fast food.

There’s no question that Chipotle is struggling right now. With repetitive failures, faith in their ability to safely handle food is called into serious question. The company’s stock price has fallen, and a number of Chipotle restaurants remain closed as they recover from outbreaks. Even among locations that are still open, lines that might normally be out the door have shrunk significantly.

Chipotle now faces a turning point in their reputation and the life of the business. We asked experts to weigh in on whether they think Chipotle can survive this crisis (they overwhelmingly said yes), and what they can do to get past it and regain the public’s trust. The insight they’ve shared with us is an excellent lesson for all businesses that may struggle with a reputation crisis.

Where Things Went Wrong for Chipotle

Chipotle’s brand emphasizes food that is fresh, healthy, and sustainably sourced. They attract customers that are looking for food that they can feel good about. So a problem with food safety in the supply chain hurt Chipotle more than it would other brands.

“When you can’t deliver on one of the cornerstones of your marketing, your reputation suffers,” explains Eden Gillott Bowe, president of Gillott Communications.

Even worse, it seems that the problem with food safety at Chipotle may have had something to do with their commitment to raw ingredients, says Steve Makadok, partner of strategic business relations at Tenet Partners. “In an interesting twist, it is Chipotle’s differentiating commitment to sourcing and carefully preparing the very best natural ingredients to offer Food with Integrity that may have led to the outbreak” he says. “Apparently, sourcing and preparing food using high-quality, raw ingredients without additives can be a risky proposition.”

Chipotle’s problems compounded when they didn’t handle the crisis very well. “This is what happens when a company, such as Chipotle, doesn’t have a crisis manager or a crisis management plan,” says Keith Singer, CEO and founder of the ICMC Group, noting that from his perspective, it looked like Chipotle was flying by the seat of their pants in handling their crises.

Singer points out two classic flaws made by Chipotle: they didn’t seem to have an emergency plan in place, and they tried to ignore the media, presumably hoping the news reports would quickly blow over. Singer notes that these are textbook examples of what not to do during a crisis.

“As an outsider looking in, it seemed that they had no clear message for customers or media,” says Singer. “For instance, how was the food infected, how many stores were affected, how were they handling the
situation, and who were their partners going to be to get the problem fixed?”

Another serious problem with their response: they offered no confidence that these problems won’t pop up again. “Their response was vague,” says Singer. “They stated that they were going to tighten controls on suppliers, increase testing procedures, work with food safety consultants, and form operational practices when handling certain high risk ingredients. That’s all well and good, but it is not specific enough.”

Why Chipotle Will Be OK

But despite their current challenges, experts overwhelmingly believe that Chipotle can bounce back from their current struggles. Of course, they have a tough road ahead, and they’ll need to take big steps to regain the trust of consumers.

“Chipotle can absolutely come back and come back strong,” says Barak Kassar. “But first they need to contain and explain. They can’t start to come back with a flashy, definitive new communication campaign about how good they are now if they then have setbacks with continued outbreaks.”

“Chipotle is going to be fine,” agrees Graham Onak marketing consultant and owner of GainTap. “Their stocks have slid down to roughly a two year low, but if I were buying stock, I’d pick it up fast.”

Onak believes that eventually, Chipotle’s customers will no longer care about the long gone crisis Chipotle endured. “Consumers today have too many things to worry about,” he says. “Constantly bombarded
by updates, news, friend requests, event reminders and the like — we’ve become largely immune to shock in the face of constant awareness.”

He points to the crisis Domino’s Pizza faced in 2009 as an example of what Chipotle may experience.

“Employees were caught doing horrible things to customers’ food on camera. It blew up all over the news and people were outraged. Did Domino’s go out of business? No. Their stock has only increased since then and the scandal has blown over.”

But Domino’s recovery didn’t simply happen with time. Onak notes, “This was largely in part to the company’s adoption of social media and outreach through Twitter and YouTube. They addressed the situation and communicated how they were taking action.”

Deborah Cohn, associate professor of marketing at the New York Institute of Technology School of Management is in agreement that Chipotle’s recovery depends on how they continue to handle their crisis.

“Companies that are honest with their customers and do something very impressive and drastic to make it right have the best shot of recovering from the crisis,” she notes. “Impressive and drastic includes paying medical bills for customers who became ill, closing stores and cleaning facilities before reopening, having health inspections in their stores on a regular basis, and then reporting out on the results.”

Bullet Belt brand manager David Mitchell believes that Chipotle can not only survive, but they can bounce back even better than they were before their health issues. He points to their loyal customer base, high quality product at an affordable price, and the fact that America loves a comeback story as reasons Chipotle can come back from this crisis.

“This time of year is filled with stories of people reinventing themselves and making changes for the better, says Mitchell. “Chipotle can become one of those stories, and millions will be able to easily
connect with that. We can’t help but to root for the underdog or the person/organization rising from the ashes.”

Chipotle Is Far From Alone

Our experts wisely pointed out that Chipotle certainly isn’t the only major company to experience a setback like this and survive. “Brands from Tylenol, Ford, Firestone, Toyota, and Taco Bell have all experienced a crisis situation with their products, impacting public trust and their brand’s reputation,” says Springboard Public Relations president Domenick Cilea. “But over time they all have recovered.”

Blue Bell is one interesting example of a company that survived, and even thrived, during a food product safety crisis. Listeria at Blue Bell’s plants was linked to 10 listeria cases, and even three deaths.

All plants were closed, and Blue Bell enjoyed lots of grassroots support from customers, with some even posting God Bless Blue Bell signs in their yards. And when production reopened, Blue Bell was met with plenty of excitement. It is fervent customer support like Blue Bell’s that can carry Chipotle through their crisis. Note: Blue Bell recently announced that they have once again found listeria in their Brenham plant.

“People tend to forget things like this,” notes Digiday Content Studio director of client engagement Ben Darche. “About ten years ago, there was a severe rat problem in the combo Taco Bell/KFC near Union Square, and neither of those brands, nor the store, seem to have suffered greatly because of it.

Jotform director of communications Chad Reid notes that consumers tend to let health scares blow over with time: “Consumers don’t have a particularly long memory with e. coli scares, otherwise Subway and Taco Bell would have been put out of businesses a long time ago.”

Chipotle’s Serious Challenge

There are some that believe Chipotle is in very serious trouble and needs to make big changes — preferably by yesterday. Otherwise, they may not survive.

“Chipotle is in very serious trouble and not likely to survive under its current brand name and/or management,” says Sam Yates, owner of Yates & Associates Public Relations & Marketing. “A single or perhaps even a few instances of tainted food or food-borne illness can be explained and corrected in the eyes of a very cognizant public. However, when there are
repeated and varied instances of illnesses, the brand is significantly damaged. Quite likely, to the point of no return possible.”

What Chipotle Must Do to Recover

How can Chipotle move on from their reputation troubles? Experts suggest lots of communication, transparency, and a full explanation of how they’re working to make their food safety processes better. At the same time, they say Chipotle needs to work to improve their support and public relations.

Explain — A Lot

Chipotle has a lot of explaining to do. Customers are understandably confused and wary of visiting the restaurant, not knowing how others got sick and how likely it is that they’ll be at risk for food borne illness themselves. Experts recommend transparency for Chipotle, with a thorough explanation of their mistakes and plans for safer food in the future.

Like many others, Singer does not believe that Chipotle is simply dealing with a case of bad luck. “There were many systematic breakdowns within the company, such as sanitary protocols, quality assurance protocols, and how to handle a crisis that is being highly scrutinized in the public arena,” he says. “The people or persons responsible for the breakdown need to be reprimanded and the public needs to be notified. This will give the public confidence that things are being taken care of and that they will not get sick when eating a meal at any of their restaurants.”

“They must continue to be open with consumers about what they are doing to prevent this from happening again,” says Alison Podworski, owner of Alison May Public Relations. “Chipotle has built their culture around honesty and their loyal customers will stick with them. For the rest of the public, they should continue to share their plans to ensure safer food practices.”

Chad Reid recommends overcommunication for Chipotle. He’d like to see updates on contamination both with the press and social media. “They have a lot of trust to earn back, so they need to at least appear proactively honest and concerned,” he says.

Karen Kessler, president and cofounder of Evergreen Partners agrees that it’s a good idea for Chipotle to show their concern: “The first lesson of such crises is that the company must demonstrate authentic concern for the victims, along with outreach that in some way contributes to their welfare.”

Makadok sees transparency as key. “Chipotle must lean in with a higher profile about the steps the company is taking to address recent health issues and speak to the results of its improved efforts. Leadership must be unwavering in its message about its 20+ year commitment to creating a better dining experience through natural, healthier, and better tasting options. This value proposition remains a valuable point of differentiation.”

Make Changes and Inform the Public

With a series of food safety problems, it’s clear that there’s been a breakdown of some sort in Chipotle’s process. And that means they have some work to do in cleaning up their supply chain and food handling. It’s now key for Chipotle to not only address these issues, but to make it clear to the public that they’ve got a handle on what went wrong and how they’re going to prevent similar problems in the future.

For Kessler, Chipotle’s changes must start with better internal communications. “Chipotle must reinforce best food handling practices and commit employees to peak performance 24/7,” she says, “Meanwhile, the company should demonstrate to customers and stockholders its commitment to fresh, healthy, great-tasting food and outstanding service.”

Darche believes that Chipotle can do this while simultaneously strengthening the brand. “Chipotle has been forced to look at how they can balance their fresh food supply with sufficient food borne disease control,” he says. “Overall, the effect in the long run will be to make the Chipotle brand stronger, and for this to be a less likely occurrence in the future. Chipotle helped lead the fast casual flight to fresh food, and it only follows that they will show the way forward in terms of balancing freshness and food safety.”

Fixing problems with food safety can even lead to innovation for Chipotle. Kassar suggests underlining their brand of Food With Integrity by developing an informative tracking system for customers: “They can today begin to implement an innovative system that lets diners know exactly where each leaf of lettuce or bite of carne asada in their burrito is coming from –via QR code on the receipt that goes to a mobile friendly website that can be viewed on the phone at the table. Some niche organic grocery brands are doing this today.”

By opening up this level of transparency, says Kassar, Chipotle can demonstrate integrity and communicate that they are making significant changes. At the same time, they can tie it to their tighter control of their supply chain that they are already talking about.

Rally Existing Support for the Brand and Reinforce Brand Strengths

As Chipotle’s brand has taken a hit, they have some work to do in order to rebuild confidence. In addition to improving communication and processes, Chipotle will need to work on reinforcing their brand’s support and strengths.

Makadok recommends that Chipotle engage their key stakeholders to serve as advocates. “Consider the role of employees, farmers, ranchers, suppliers, and loyal customers as advocates,” he says. “Its one thing
for the company to communicate, it’s quite another to have support from other constituents.”

Another key point is to underline its value in differentiation. “One of the advantages Chipotle has had is its new definition of Mexican food,” says Chris Vollmer with Xenon Global Media. “But that also means that the company needs to explain now, more than ever, how its recipes are different and better.”

Continue to Push Public Relations

In addition to garnering support from current stakeholders, experts say that Chipotle needs to open their doors a bit wider to the public. They recommend engaging in publicity pushes including media blitzes and giveaways.

“Invite media and food bloggers into the kitchens,” suggests Vollmer. “This will start a new wave of product reviews, which is exactly what the brand needs. It’s a huge opportunity.”

Jeremy Levi, marketing director for Mars Wellness thinks it would be a good idea to get everyone in their restaurants for little or no cost. “Americans won’t turn down a free meal,” he says. “Once people leave and don’t get sick, it may allow them to get past their subconscious fear of eating there.”

Do it All Quickly

Whatever Chipotle does, it’s clear they have to act fast to save their brand’s reputation. They not only need to do a good job of communicating and turning around their mistakes, they need to do it in a hurry so that they don’t lose the remaining support that they have.

“Today’s hyper-connected news cycle throttled by social media and mobility can help a company, provided they are perceived by the public as genuinely concerned,” says Cilea. “It can also crush a brand if they don’t.”

“When an outbreak or product recall impacts a brand like Chipotle, companies must act quickly, and acknowledge the issue, addressing it with the utmost urgency,” he says. “Having a crisis communication program enables a brand to get in front of the issue, take swift action, and most importantly, communicate early and often.”

What Chipotle Can Do in the Future

For the future, experts recommend that Chipotle adopt a crisis management plan. They should take steps to identify issues before they become serious problems, and have a plan of action in place to adopt if they have similar issues again.

Ultimately, Chipotle’s future depends on whether or not they can stop their mistakes and move on. “Unless there are further outbreaks and missteps, this will soon fade, says Bowe. “If Chipotle uses what they’ve learned in 2015, their reputation might even come back stronger.”

As for Chipotle’s plans, they have pledged to fully reassess their food handling practices to ensure better safety in the future. And we expect that they will keep customers informed on their progress.