Burrito maker is spending big money to change its narrative.

By John Kell
April 10, 2017

Despite a rough 2016, Chipotle has maintained its sense of humor.

Its latest ad campaign, dubbed “As Real as It Gets”, features performances by four comedians in a bid to lure back diners via humor after a food-safety inspired exodus led to a prolonged sales slump. The ad campaign, which launched Monday, is the largest Chipotle has ever undertaken with media buys planned for national TV spots, online/social, print and radio. The majority of the planned spending will be for national TV.

“We’ve always been a brand that has had a well developed voice and a lot of that is based on humor,” Mark Crumpacker, chief marketing and development officer, told Fortune in an interview. “We have created these ads to reinforce the brand’s personality.”

The ad campaign, which features comedians like John Mulaney and a voiceover performance by actor Jeffrey Tambor, shows three comedians separately stepping into a massive burrito where “everything is real.” The comedians tell jokes, talk about their fictional husbands, and are essentially not acting real. Tambor (never seen in the spot) says they should be more “real” like Chipotle. The company’s marketing team is hopeful that viewers will enjoy the jokes—but also make the connection that the brand is a truthful one.

Chipotle has spent roughly a year and a half aiming to get control of the once-pristine image it had cultivated as a fast-casual purveyor that sold fresh ingredients that were tasty and healthier than rival fast-food fare. But management was criticized for bungling a response to the prolonged food-safety crisis that started in the fall of 2015, resulting in a 13% drop in sales for 2016. That was the first annual sales decline since Chipotle went public over a decade ago.

“During the events of late 2015 and 2016, our carefully crafted brand narrative was unfortunately replaced with talk about food safety,” Crumpacker said. “When customers talk about Chipotle, it is easy for them to say ‘Oh yeah, did you hear about the food safety issues?’ It is important as a brand to replace that narrative with our intended brand narrative.”

That intentional campaign is one that Chipotle says is based on humor and honesty. The tagline, “As Real as it Gets,” is a link to the chain’s recent announcement that the company doesn’t use any added colors, flavors or preservatives to prepare its food. That ingredient update represents the work the company put into removing additives and preservatives from tortillas used to make burritos, tacos and chips.

Throughout 2016, Chipotle relied on summer rewards program and a handful of other short-term promotions to try to lure back diners that were turned off by the food safety headlines. It ultimately wasn’t enough—traffic and sales slipped throughout the year, with trends only dramatically improving in December.

The company still intends to use promotions this year to help boost sales, but the national ad campaign will also likely be an important factor if Chipotle wants to deliver the “high-single digits” increase in sales at comparable restaurants that management has promised Wall Street for 2017.

Historically, Chipotle had spent between 1.5% to 1.6% of sales on marketing. This year, it will be around 3% when factoring in promotions and ad spending. Chipotle says the industry average is around 6% to 7% of sales, so it still is more judicious than many rivals. “But if we see results we like, we aren’t going to hesitate to spend more,” Crumpacker said, an indication more ad buying could occur if the campaign is a hit.

By hiring actor-comedians like Sam Richardson and Jillian Bell, Chipotle says it is doing something different how many other national restaurant chains advertise. Many ads tend to focus on limited-time offers or talk about how fresh the food is. “We aren’t doing either of those things,” Crumpacker said. “We are talking about real ingredients but doing it through a metaphor of being honest.” In fact, very few images of the food appears in Chipotle’s TV ads.

Sandwiched between the two traditional ad campaigns that are planned for this spring and fall, Chipotle is also cooking up some non-traditional advertising this summer. Those plans haven’t been disclosed, though as a reminder, last summer it launched a four-minute short film called “A Love Story” to coincide with the launch of a summer rewards program.

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