Content Marketing: Chipotle Cultivates Thought with Celebrated Authors

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Content Marketing: Chipotle Cultivates Thought with Celebrated Authors

You’ve heard of chick lit, sci-fi, murder mysteries, fantasy and graphic novels. Now there’s a new literary genre called disposable lit. You can only find it at Chipotle … on their restaurant packaging in a series called “Cultivating Thought.”

The Mexican fast food chain hatched the idea last May with a series of original essays printed on its cups and bags. An original illustration by a different artist accompanies each essay. You can read (and see) the entire series at CultivatingThought.com, the campaign website.

Influential authors, actors, comedians and other thought-leaders penned the essays, including the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, Toni Morrison, George Saunders and Sarah Silverman. They are all 2-minute reads covering a variety of topics:

  • Toni Morrison contributed a literary piece called “Two-Minute Seduction”
  • Sarah Silverman’s “Two-Minute Index” is funny and edgy
  • Steven Pinker presents a compelling and radical argument on how we should look at the world in “A Two-Minute Case for Optimism”

The idea is the brainchild of Jonathan Safran Foer, the New York Times best-selling author (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Eating Animals, Everything Is Illuminated) who curated the series. Apparently, the idea came to him one day while sitting in Chipotle with nothing to read.

He approached Chipotle CEO Steve Ells with the idea to entertain customers and expose them to creative people. He recalls the conversation in a YouTube video, “You have all of these surfaces in your restaurants, like the cups and the bags. Why don’t you just give something to people? Not as any kind of marketing tool. Not with any particular message. But just something thoughtful.”

The series attracted a torrent of media and customer attention–mostly positive. The LA Review of Books published a critical and hilarious review of the series called “The Los Angeles Review of Cups,” surely a first in literary criticism.

Others complained the series lacked any Mexican or Mexican-American authors and some felt the essays were simply too short (apparently they were still munching their burritos by the time they finished reading).

Granted, the lack of Mexican authors is a clear miss for the restaurant chain. But the other criticism shows us how engaging the series is—and that Chipotle is not shy to experiment.

The Scarecrow

In fact, Chipotle is no stranger to interesting branded content. In 2013 they launched “The Scarecrow” to critical acclaim. It’s a short film starring an animated scarecrow determined to find an alternative to unsustainable processed food manufactured by a fictional industrial giant called Crow Foods.

Chipotle produced the video to promote an iOS game (also called “The Scarecrow”) that challenges players to “help the Scarecrow rescue the City of Plenty from Crow Foods, the powerful industrial food corporation that has taken over the city.”

The film clearly resonated with viewers. It’s attracted close to 13 million YouTube views, more than 16,000 comments and media coverage in places like the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Slate.

Content marketing lessons for smaller brands

I know what you’re thinking: if my business had a budget the size of Chipotle’s, we’d be making films and working with celebrated artists, too. Yet there are lessons for smaller brands from “The Scarecrow” and the “Cultivating Thought” initiatives.

Put your customer first

“Cultivating Thought” is an exceptional example of understanding the customer experience. I know I’m certainly frustrated when I find myself in a restaurant alone without any reading material. And who wouldn’t appreciate a super short story they can’t access elsewhere?

Be open to unusual ideas from unexpected sources

If you’re a marketer or business owner, you’re likely busy fighting the latest fire instead of thinking about big picture improvements. Yet it’s key to take a step back and open yourself to inspiration—wherever you find it—if you want long-term business success.

Create intelligent marketing

There are 2 things “Cultivating Thought” and “The Scarecrow” have in common: they don’t underestimate the audience’s intelligence. The former features leading thinkers while the latter sparked discussion about GMOs and ethical farming practice. Not bad for a fast food company.

While it may not be easy to put these lessons into practice, there’s an opportunity for every brand to walk a mile in their customer’s moccasins … then surprise and delight them with marketing efforts that truly resonate.

If you need help developing a content strategy, get in touch.

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