SBD/March 15, 2013/Marketing and Sponsorship

Chipotle's Celebrity Card Program Brings Exposure, Saves Endorsement Expenditures

Celebrities chosen by Chipotle to receive a card are allotted one free burrito a day
Fast casual QSR Chipotle Mexican Grill has long been a popular spot among consumers, and the company's celebrity card program now has assembled an array of unofficial endorsers, including several prominent athletes. The strategy, known in the marketing industry as celebrity seeding, is neither secret nor new, but Chipotle’s program is unpublicized and has only recently gained notoriety when it was mentioned on social media. The concept is a sort of reverse engineering of the typical endorsement process. Chipotle waits for well-known people to express an affinity for the company's food either privately or publicly, and then sends them a card that gives them a free burrito a day. The company asks for nothing in return for the favor, but many high-profile athletes have taken to social media to sing the company’s praises after receiving one. The Marketing Arm Managing Dir Matt Delzell, whose company is unaffiliated with the program, said, “Everyone knows with a television commercial, a company paid for that endorsement. With Chipotle, the consumer can make the connection, ‘Hey I don’t ever see this celebrity doing TV commercials for Chipotle, and I don’t see them doing press events for Chipotle, so it feels real.’” The company declined to formally discuss participants in the program, but athletes who have publically indicated they have a card range from U.S. women's national soccer team F Abby Wambach to Heat G Mario Chalmers to iconic skateboarder Tony Hawk. “The average Chipotle consumer, at least publicly, would not think they’re affected by a celebrity endorsement, or influenced in any way by that,” Delzell said. “But I think subliminally, they probably are.”

GOODEN & PLENTY: Bucks F Drew Gooden about a year ago went into a local franchise in Milwaukee and, after finding out from an employee about the celebrity card, expressed interest in getting one. Gooden did not hear about it until earlier this year when he unexpectedly received a package from the company with one in it. He immediately went on Twitter and wrote, "Good looking Chipotle!! Free Burrito's for life!!! Thanks a lot!" Gooden said, "For them to send out a card for me to go and eat on the house, I'm going do my best to give them play for that and to help them in their marketing as much as possible." The unofficial status between the two parties has turned into a positive for some athletes. Pro lacrosse player Paul Rabil said, "Fans know when you're being truthful, when you're being honest, when you're just plugging a company and a lot of times that (mention of Chipotle) just comes from the sincerity of the moment you're in." He added, "Sometimes for me … it alleviates the pressure that may come from me supporting one of my actual sponsors, because it kind of creates an open conversation with my fan base."

GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN: The celebrity card program was born out of Chipotle's unique marketing philosophy of eschewing TV ads in favor of a word-of-mouth approach that relies on the power of personal recommendation. Chipotle Social Media Manager Joe Stupp said, "We don't really feel like TV is the way for us to go. It's an incredible expenditure, and while it may bring sales, at least kind of, you have to keep doing it. If you stop, it just drops off." He added, "Word of mouth is something that builds a lot stronger and it's not as artificial. We think our food sells itself, and that's one of the things that enables our word-of-mouth marketing."
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