It will take a dash of direct marketing, multiple servings of promotional free food, a sprinkle of humility and a heaping helping of clarification.
Executives at Chipotle on Wednesday announced plans to repair its tattered reputation and brand following months of E.coli and norovirus outbreaks across the U.S.
Against the backdrop of a conference of investors and analysts in Florida, Chipotle’s CEO and co-founder Steve Ells hinted at what’s to come next month for the chain.
The internal communications: On the morning of Feb. 8, Chipotle plans to close all its locations for an employee video conference. Leaders are expected to outline for their 60,000 employees the steps the restaurant chain has taken to test all its foods. They’re also likely to discuss new food safety measures, including a plan to move all tomato and lettuce preparation to its central commissary.
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In-store transparency: One brand differentiator that Chipotle has enjoyed is how patrons see food preparation in its restaurants, including the grilling of steaks and steaming of rice. That will continue, Ells says. The Associated Press reports that “the sense of freshly prepared ingredients has been one of Chipotle’s attractions as it has sought to distinguish itself from traditional fast-food chains.”
The timing: Some have questioned whether February is too soon to launch the new marketing efforts. Ells, however, said he’s “extremely confident” that his company will recover, win back customers and emerge stronger. A spoonful of optimism can be helpful in a PR crisis.
The CDC: One crucial part of the marketing and public perception lies with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention . The AP said Ells and his colleagues expect that at some point the CDC will declare an end to the E. coli outbreak. The agency has not identified an ingredient that was responsible for the E. coli outbreak. Chipotle execs and the CDC have said they may never know what was to blame, according to news reports.
The clarification: Another goal of the PR and marketing campaign is to clarify for customers what has happened at various Chipotle locations. E.coli in nine states and a norovirus outbreak that sickened some 150 people in Boston are not related. Thrown into this PR crisis was news last week that the federal government is investigating a number of health violations at a California Chipotle, unrelated to the previous gastrointestinal ailments.
There’s a hot mess, and it’s not in the kitchen
CNNMoney.com has reported the chain is expected to announce its fourth-quarter earnings on Feb. 2. With stocks that tanked more than 40 percent due to health scares, Ells and others admitted Wednesday the company's earnings will be "messy."
Costs are also expected to go up in 2016 from additional marketing and food safety measures, the outlet said.
Executives on Wednesday admitted they're already looking forward to 2017 and other long-term goals. Communicators on the team are probably looking to the future as well.