Chipotle Seeks Laughs (and Distance From Food Safety Concerns) in Biggest Campaign Yet

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Chipotle Mexican Grill is ready for some laughs.

The once high-flying chain hopes that featuring comedians in a series of videos can finally help it move past food-borne illness issues and the costly promotions it has relied on to recover.

The "As Real as it Gets" campaign, out Monday, is Chipotle's biggest to date. It centers around conversations inside an oversized replica of a foil-wrapped Chipotle burrito. In TV and online videos, comedians Jillian Bell, John Mulaney and Sam Richardson walk into the burrito and enter a luxurious circular living room, complete with a roaring fire and Rory Scovel playing the piano. In each spot, one comedian chats with the soothing voice of actor Jeffrey Tambor, who tells them to be real because they're "inside a Chipotle burrito where everything is real."

"These are great comedians, and I think that's important for us right now, given what the brand's been through. To see that people recognize advocating for the brand in a way through participating in these spots is helpful," said Chipotle Chief Marketing and Development Officer Mark Crumpacker.

Patrons reduced or eliminated their visits to Chipotle starting in late October 2015 amid an E.coli outbreak and other food safety concerns. Chipotle has overhauled its food preparation techniques, training, and ingredient list since then and wants to assure people that its food -- wholesome ingredients that were clearly a key element of the brand's prior success -- is safe to eat.

The campaign from Venables Bell & Partners is similar to an idea the agency presented in its winning pitch to Chipotle. In January, Chipotle picked Venables for creative and MullenLowe Mediahub for media, each replacing GSD&M.

The campaign is Chipotle's biggest TV push ever, following a limited test of TV ads in 2016 and a Grammys ad in 2012. In the spots, the comedians talk about everything from fears and odd allergies to potential book titles and relationships. The ads, at least until the closing shot of a burrito being prepared, feel more like snippets of a show than restaurant ads.

"These are intentionally not what we're used to seeing," said Will McGinness, partner and executive creative director, Venables. "We love the fact that they didn't want to do anything that just felt like a familiar ad construct."

Meanwhile, humor and burrito close-ups appear in digital and out-of-home work. A banner ad, for example, first tells viewers that it's dinnertime, then suggests they need better ad-blocking software.

Mr. Crumpacker credited Venables for pulling off the new campaign "in record time." It's an agency he came close to hiring nine years ago. Mr. Crumpacker conducted a review when he joined Chipotle in 2009. Venables was one of three finalists, but Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners won the business back then.

The campaign comes after the worst year, by far, in Chipotle's history. Same-store sales, or sales at longstanding locations, fell 20.4% in 2016. It has begun to show some improvement. December's same-store sales jumped 14.7%, albeit off a poor showing a year earlier when the issues were fresh.

This year Chipotle aims to reduce its promotional spending -- think buy one, get one free deals or free chips and guacamole -- that have been a big component of its extended effort to woo diners back.

Chipotle plans to spend about 2% of projected sales on marketing and 1% on promotions in 2017. Last year it spent 2.6% of sales on marketing and 2.4% of sales on promotions. Prior to 2016, marketing spending averaged around 1.5-1.6% of sales, with up to another 1% or so spent on promotions, Mr. Crumpacker said.

The "As Real as it Gets" campaign is set to run in the spring and fall, with the majority of the media buy spent on TV and other forms of video, along with radio, social, search and out-of-home.

The "real" message is also appearing on signs in its roughly 2,200 restaurants and other messaging. Late last month, Chipotle declared itself the only national restaurant chain using no added colors, flavors or preservatives in its food. In early April it ran an online "Spot the Imposter" promotion giving people the chance to win chips and guacamole (with a purchase) if they spotted an item in a lineup that was not one of its 51 ingredients.

For the summer, Chipotle's marketing, as usual, will be focused on outreach to existing customers. Last year that included the brand's first major loyalty promotion, Chiptopia. Mr. Crumpacker declined to say much about this summer's plan, but called it "an interactive experience where you can create things and then perhaps play some sort of a game." The effort will likely include some sort of reward for its best customers and will debut when Chipotle is ready to launch new versions of its iOS and Android apps.

And later this year patrons may see dessert debut in more restaurants. If one of two desserts being tested lands on the menu it would mean adding cinnamon to that 51-ingredient list, Mr. Crumpacker said. Speculation suggests the product will be some sort of churro or sweetened tortillas or chips.

"It's a very simple dessert," he said.

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