As it stands while writing this article, Chipotle’s official Facebook page has 2, 143, 579 likes and counting. The poster child of word of mouth marketing, Chipotle has revolutionized how a brand can have a huge impact without relying on traditional mediums of advertising and marketing. Over the course of Chipotle’s 17 year history, they’ve managed to almost single handedly create and define the fast casual section of the food service industry. With $2.73 billion in revenue for 2012, the company is undeniably doing substantial business. But how have they managed to establish such clout in the market without running traditional marketing campaigns? Take for example the fact that they’ve only ever run one national TV spot during the Grammys but otherwise they’ve essentially steered clear of the medium which for a business of their size and type, is almost unheard of. According to Business Insider, in 2011 Chipotle spent $5.8 million on advertising compared to national fast food chain Arbys, which spent close to $100 million on their advertisements. Up until recent years Chipotle was hesitant to even pursue radio or print spots, but instead relied on their exceptional product and brand to sell itself.
Word of mouth marketing has proven to be an essential element of the company’s brand identity and has helped to propagate its’ almost mythical sized burritos into the cultural lexicon of American identity. Growing up in Overland Park, KS, I was fortunate enough to have experienced Chipotle around 1999. My best friend got a job at one of their first stores to expand outside of their Colorado home turf. I still remember to this day how much he enjoyed his job and how well he was respected and rewarded for his hard work, even as a teenager. Eventually we both went to the University of Kansas and he transferred to another one of their flagship stores. My buddy set me up with a job there and since then I’ve inadvertently become a loyal brand advocate ever since. I remember that Chipotle was the first job I ever had that I was proud to say I had. When my friends or family found out where I worked at, they were always enthusiastic and excited for me. I can’t count how many people asked me how or if I could hook them up with a job. In many cases even if people I spoke with about my job had never been to a Chipotle, people were familiar with the brand because their positive reputation and unique identity preceded them. I spent 3 years working for the company and to this day I have nothing to say but positive things. In fact much to the dismay of my daughter and girlfriend, I could probably eat there everyday. Their product is quality, there consistency is amazing and the value of their food is unmatched in my opinion.
It’s safe to say that I’m a Chipotle fanboy, I’ll admit it but I know I would be so regardless of having had the positive experience of working for them. As a Chipotle fanboy I’m not alone. Just look at their Facebook, I’m literally in the company of millions of people.
So besides having a superb product, how has the brand achieved such popularity and an almost cult like following? Momentum, that’s how. Chipotle has an unstoppable momentum that is energized by its’ army of loyal brand advocates like myself. Chipotle customers are incredibly vocal about their affinity for their baby sized burritos and have no reservations about telling their circle of friends and family about their love for the brand. The brand has done an amazing job of taking care of its’ customers over the span of their 17 years in business and the reciprocity for their customers is hard pressed to be found in other restaurant chains. Next time you go into Chipotle try and survey the customers who are eating inside. Chances are you will find someone taking a picture of their monster burrito and uploading it to one of a variety of social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Have you ever seen how long of line people will stand in on Halloween, just to get a “boorito”? When I worked at Chipotle, on Halloween and other various promotional days, it would not be uncommon for a line to form with over a hundred people that stretched outside of the building and down half a block. At the time I could never understand why people would waste a half hour of their day to save $6-$7 on a burrito but now I’ve come to realize it’s about loyalty and showing support for a brand customers truly appreciate. Chipotle fans are part of a community of people that are proud of their affiliation with the brand and want the world to know it. Their brand advocates are the key to how Chipotle has been able to rely on word of mouth marketing instead of spending $100’s of millions of dollars on traditional marketing avenues. The money that Chipotle has saved from traditional advertising methods, can be used to facilitate more community involvement projects or customer appreciation days, which ultimately reinforce the loyalty of the company’s brand advocates. If you don’t believe me about how much pride customer’s have in Chipotle, try and say something negative about the company while you are in line and chances are another customer will come to the defense of the brand they love so much.