Chipotle: Back to the Start

Brand: Chipotle

Agency: CAA Marketing

For something that was initially created to be an introductory video for a new-fangled loyalty program, Chipotle’s “Back to the Start” made a splash beyond what the chain—and adland as a whole—ever expected.

“It was never intended to be an ad,” said Chipotle chief marketing officer Mark Crumpacker. Maybe not, but it was the chain’s first national TV spot, and it made a massive splash. The video ended up airing in full—more than two minutes long—during the Grammys in 2012. The animated video, created by CAA, featured Willie Nelson’s cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” and took viewers through one farmer’s change of heart, from running a huge industrialized farming compound to one with more sustainable and humane practices. Chipotle encouraged viewers to download the song at iTunes, with proceeds going to the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation.

Chipotle created an unorthodox loyalty program, Mr. Crumpacker said, that didn’t reward customers who frequent the chain; it rewarded customers who had knowledge of food-industry issues. So creative that illustrated some of those issues was essential. “We didn’t think about it as an ad campaign—it was an introductory video,” said Mr. Crumpacker. The spot resonated enough—beyond its loyalty-program intentions—as an online video that the company decided to buy some media around it. So in fall 2011, the video aired in some 5,700 movie theaters.

“We put it on YouTube, and the next morning, I woke up to messages from people who had seen it saying things like, ‘We didn’t know you could do something so powerful,” Mr. Crumpacker said. “It just spread so quickly and virally. So then, we thought, let’s put it in theaters, and when we did, we got reports back that people were applauding in theaters.”

Chipotle execs knew they wanted to push the video even further, so it bought time during the Grammys—a move that upstaged some of the performers that night. The video impressed so many people in the ad industry that it contributed to Chipotle winning the first branded content Grand Prix at Cannes.

“I remember seeing the video in cinema,” said Andrew Keller, CEO of CP&B and judge for the 21st century campaigns. “What a bold move to say it out loud—to challenge the heart of American farming and the food industry. Through events and in-store, it created more than a shared-values platform. It was an action platform.”

“Chipotle’s ‘Back to the Start’ is perfect. It says a commercial is not limited to 30, 60 or even 120 seconds. How about 140?” said Robert Wong, executive creative director, Google Creative Lab. “This film captures a company’s beliefs and ideals in a truthful, inspirational and hauntingly beautiful way. This is the ‘We’d like to teach the world to sing’ of the 21st century.”

“Back to the Start” was the dawn of a branded-content era for Chipotle. The chain went on to create other long-form videos, including “Scarecrow,” also created by CAA and was accompanied by an interactive game. “Scarecrow,” which was produced by Moonbot Studios, earlier this year led CAA to win a PR Grand Prix at Cannes. Chipotle also launched a series, “Farmed and Dangerous,” a four-part satirical comedy series on Hulu, earlier this year.