3 Restaurant and Retail Takeaways From Adweek Presents: The Way Forward

Top marketers from Chipotle and Athleta discuss how they're connecting with consumers

Headshot of Kathryn Lundstrom

Key insights:

For our fifth episode of Adweek Presents: The Way Forward, Adweek’s Lisa Granatstein, editor and svp of programming, dove into the world of restaurants and retail with the chief marketing officers of two leading brands: Chipotle’s Chris Brandt and Athleta’s Sheila Shekar Pollak.

Both of their industries have been profoundly impacted by shelter-in-place orders due to the coronavirus pandemic, requiring serious shifts in how—and where—their brands reach consumers.

Chipotle and Athleta have each moved toward more digital interaction with their customers as a result of social distancing requirements. Brandt and Shekar Pollak also highlighted the importance of listening to consumers’ changing needs and making sure that brand messaging is values-focused.

Meet the consumer where they’re at: online

As the unofficial uniform of quarantine, athleisure items like yoga pants and joggers have seen an uptick in interest (even Anna Wintour is in sweats these days). But the closure of retail stores has completely changed how Athleta fulfills one of its main goals: building community.

Last year, Athleta hosted more than 10,000 events at its retail locations. This year, that’s just not possible. “Community has always been a huge focus, but when Covid happened we had to quickly pivot,” Shekar Pollak said.

The brand hosted its first virtual Empower Hour earlier this month, which included a workout and inspirational messages from Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix and author Glennon Doyle. Next, they’re planning to build the event out into a series to support the Athleta community on an ongoing basis.

Chipotle‘s Brandt said the company has benefited from its ability to move quickly and decisively, taking “a few calculated chances.” The burrito chain debuted its Chipotlane drive-thru service last year, and has expanded that significantly as Covid-19 necessitated the closure of dining areas. Like many other curbside services that have cropped up in recent weeks, customers order through the app and receive a pickup time rather than waiting in line like at a traditional drive-thru.

And on the advertising front, Brandt said Chipotle had to make some big changes after live sports were canceled. “You gotta be where people are,” he said. And after leagues canceled the events that Chipotle would’ve sponsored, the brand “redeployed to more streaming and more digital,” said Brandt.

Keep tabs on consumer needs as they change

As the nature of the pandemic continues to change, so do consumers’ needs—and it’s happening rapidly, making it more important than ever for brands to listen closely to what people want from them. “You have to be able to respond to the changing consumer psyche,” said Brandt.

That means ensuring your messaging fits the moment perfectly. At first, that meant sending messages of hope and supporting frontline workers. Now, according to Brandt, consumers want to know whether your restaurant is a safe place to eat or order from.

For Athleta, the immediate response was to help consumers get what they needed to be working from home or working out from home, and staying safe while doing it. Joggers, for example, have seen “triple-digit sales growth,” according to Shekar Pollak.

The brand also just started selling masks, which immediately became a top item in its online store. “We see an incredible customer need on this right now,” she said. Over the summer, Athleta will be “taking it to the next level,” working to meet customer needs related to protective wear. That might be improved masks for working out or special pockets for hand sanitizer.

Communicate your values as a brand

At Athleta, Shekar Pollak said vulnerability has been key to the brand’s communication throughout the crisis—internally and externally.

“It’s been really important with the team to show my vulnerable side, and just be honest. When the days are hard, I talk about that,” she said. As a result, the pandemic has brought her team a lot closer and enabled them to work better and more efficiently together, despite having to work from home.

Similarly, the more vulnerable brand communications have also been the ones that do best on social media, said Shekar Pollak. The consumer “wants this hyper-shift to values” that focuses on authenticity and vulnerability and shows a “behind-the-scenes” perspective of the brand.

Chipotle’s also been able to lean into its values during the pandemic, and found itself able to speak to one value that’s been a touchy one for the brand in recent years: food safety. After a series of E. coli outbreaks at its restaurants in 2015, the company has steered clear of addressing food safety directly—though Brandt said that’s always been a top priority for Chipotle. Now, the brand can express that value in a way that makes sense, and shows off the systems they’ve had in place for years now.

“More than ever, people want to engage with brands that share their values,” Brandt said. For Chipotle, that means honing in on its mission to “cultivate a better world”—which has maybe never felt more relevant.

@klundster kathryn.lundstrom@adweek.com Kathryn Lundstrom is Adweek's breaking news reporter based in Austin.