For the average YouTube viewer, Chipotle’s computer-animated “Back to the Start” video from 2011, portraying a family farmer fighting back against industrial agriculture’s machine-made mystery food, was two minutes of entertainment (helped in no small part by Willie Nelson’s crooning the Coldplay song, “The Scientist,” on the backing track).
But for Mark Crumpacker, Chipotle’s chief marketing and development officer, it was a wake-up call. He figured the video, produced with CAA Marketing, would resonate with viewers. But his team was caught off guard as the video’s hit count rose well into seven-digit territory. “We didn’t think it would be quite the sensation that it was,” he says. “It was a film. It didn’t have built into it a way for people to share it. It didn’t have any promotional element built into it.”
Live and learn. Holding onto the farmer-as-hero theme, Crumpacker returned with a sequel in September 2013. “The Scarecrow” also features an underdog who triumphs over industrial farming with his home garden. But the mesmerizing animation, the pathetically lovable scarecrow character and the music (Fiona Apple’s haunting rendition of “Pure Imagination”) proved irresistible. To date, the video has notched well over 13 million views. Half a million consumers downloaded an accompanying iPhone and iPad game. All told, the effort generated more than 500 million media impressions, valued at some $7 million if Chipotle had paid for traditional ads.
The 21-year-old fast-casual chain has never done things the traditional way, though, thanks in large part to its CMO. Crumpacker actually designed Chipotle’s first logo in the ’90s, before taking the marketing helm five years ago. Since then, he’s tirelessly preached the ethos of Chipotle’s socially responsible farming to the masses.
After airing “Back to the Start” during the 2012 Grammy Awards, Chipotle donated all iTunes proceeds from downloads of Willie Nelson’s “The Scientist” to the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable agriculture.
The videos are part of Chipotle’s “Cultivate a Better World” platform, which includes popular outdoor food and music festivals.
Chipotle founder Steve Ells credits Crumpacker with spreading the chain’s gospel. “He took a completely fresh look at how to convey the essence of Chipotle’s brand and our important mission of changing the way people think about and eat fast food,” Ells says. “He was able to brilliantly convey this idea of the importance of where your food comes from.”
Crumpacker has spent the last year and a half putting a modest media spend ($10 million in 2013, per Kantar estimates) in channels like outdoor, radio and print. He leads a 35-person marketing team focused on helping individual stores undertake neighborly promotions, like free lunches for nearby businesses.
In the first half of 2014, Chipotle saw a 17.7 percent year-over-year jump in profits to $193 million. And in February, the chain returned with yet another video effort. “Farmed and Dangerous” is an ambitious, four-part dark comedy series about—yep—the evils of industrial agriculture. Chipotle signed Ray Wise to play the chief public relations man for the sinister Animoil Corporation.
There’s little doubt this latest effort will sell plenty of chips and guac. In its first few days, the first episode of “Farmed and Dangerous” exceeded Hulu’s viewership expectations for the entire series.
View the Brand Genius winner class of 2014:
Paul Crandell, GoPro | Mark Crumpacker, Chipotle | Michelle N. Fernandez, Canon USA | Camille M. Gibson, General Mills | Trudy Hardy, BMW of North America | Matt Jauchius, Nationwide | Quinn Kilbury, Newcastle Brown Ale | David Melançon, Benjamin Moore & Co. | Shane Smith, Vice | Dana White, UFC