After years of planning, Chipotle Mexican Grill is promoting an unbranded series meant to slyly teach kids about making good food choices, a move that comes at a crucial time as the company tries to move past major food-safety related woes.
The series, "RAD Lands," is aimed at 7-to-10-year old children. It launched this week on iTunes and will be available to schools through a multi-year partnership with Discovery Education.
"We saw that there was a dearth of really good content out there focused on kids and young eaters" to help educate them on food and where it comes from, said Mark Shambura, Chipotle's exec director of marketing.
Chipotle hired some heavy hitters to work on the project. The Magic Store, the team behind "Yo Gabba Gabba," worked on the series along with CAA Marketing. The six shows, each about 22 minutes long, center on animated outer-space segments featuring a group called the Cultivators trying to save the galaxy's animals and plants.
"It's a little bit of an entertainment Trojan horse to kind of get them to engage in the content across the 22 minutes," Mr. Shambura said.
Other segments include cooking with celebrity chefs and appearances by musicians. While this is not Chipotle's first unbranded effort, it is its first big unbranded series in years and the first targeted at a younger set, a cohort Chipotle does not directly advertise to.
"We want to educate kids and teach them, but we also want to connect with their parents and their families," Mr. Shambura said.
Certain elements of "RAD Lands" are likely to catch the attention of parents. Musicians on the show include Biz Markie, Neon Trees, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips and Portugal The Man. Chefs making appearances including Amanda Freitag and Duff Goldman.
The name "RAD Lands" has a bit of a double meaning. RAD serves as an acronym for respect, appreciate, defend. And there's the inherent meaning of the word rad (again, perhaps, a nod to the parents). Lands ties into the galaxy the Cultivators travels around and to farming segments.
The series comes as Chipotle aims to move beyond deals and other marketing aimed at winning back customers who abandoned the chain in the wake of food-related illness issues, dragging down its sales and its stock price. Prior to the issues, which began making national headlines toward the end of 2015, Chipotle had long-form content aimed at an older set. "Farmed and Dangerous," its four-episode satirical series, ran on Hulu in 2014.
"It's really a return to sort of normalcy from a marketing perspective, a return to the kinds of things that have really helped us define the Chipotle brand after a somewhat anomalous year in our evolution," said Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. "'RAD Lands' and the things that you'll see from us throughout the rest of the year will be really much more of a return to the kinds of marketing programs that have really been instrumental in defining what we're all about."
Chipotle, of course, is not the only marketer working on content that does not explicitly scream advertising. Even commercials can become unbranded content. Pepsi is taking Kyrie Irving's Uncle Drew character from ads into a movie.
"The process of making this show really was exciting to me because it wasn't Chipotle saying 'Here's a job, can you do this,'" said Scott Schultz, creator and executive producer, The Magic Store.
Mr. Schultz, one of the creators of the successful "Yo Gabba Gabba" children's TV show, said he has turned down companies' advances in the past.
"I honestly really give props to Chipotle. I've been approached by companies that want to do branded stuff and it's absolutely not that," Mr. Schultz said.
He knew the series was hitting the right "entertaining with a message" tone, in part, when his 9-year-old son was enjoying the content and seemed to understand not just the storyline but the importance of fresh food.
Chipotle plans to promote the series in a paid digital marketing campaign aimed at families, but will not be marketing it in restaurants. The first episode is free on iTunes. The full six-episode series costs $4.99, or $1.99 per episode. Chipotle came up with the content before it decided on a distribution partner, Mr. Shambura said.
Discovery Education, meanwhile, is working on a curriculum for "RAD Lands in School" including lesson plans meant to teach students about the environment, health, science and eating fresh food. In the fall, the program will include what Chipotle calls a virtual field trip that will be made available to the millions of educators that receive Discovery Education materials.
Chipotle and Discovery hosted a launch event Tuesday at PS 64 Robert Simon Elementary School in New York including a guacamole making demonstration with Chef Richard Blais. Chipotle also said it would donate $100,000 to the Chef Ann Foundation, a non-profit organization working with schools on providing nutritious meals to students.
Chipotle has done some work with schools before, such as hosting teacher appreciation events. In February, it expanded a reading rewards program that gives youngsters free kid's meals when they reach reading goals.