How to bring your mission to life with storytelling

How to bring your mission to life with storytelling

When purpose-driven fast food brand Chipotle initially started talking about their beliefs and actions on sustainable farming,  customers weren’t all that interested. Animal welfare, environmental impact and sustainable agriculture didn’t make them hungry. They just wanted a good burrito served quickly. Read here how Chipotle founder Steve Ells and his team used storytelling successfully to bring their mission to life and what is essential in doing so. 

When you are not getting the love

Your company is truly ‘walking the talk’ when it comes to sustainability. You sweat to change your business. You believe in it.  And you want others to see (and believe) it too.  Also you hope it might give you a competitive advantage. You make sure all your efforts are described in an extensive sustainability report. You share data and DIY tips on your website. It’s all there, for everybody.

But your customers don’t seem to be interested in your efforts.  Nobody reads the reports. Nobody cares about the data. Nobody responds to the DIY suggestions.  You are not getting the love you were hoping for… As it turns out ‘walking the talk’ is a very different from ‘talking about the walk’ in a way customers will listen. And, even more important, will talk back. Or talk about it to their friends.

Read here which two great lessons can be learned from fast food chain Chipotle on how to get it right and make your customers understand, love and share your (sustainability) story.

Food with Integrity

Chipotle wrapper patternChipotle Mexican Grill is a fast food chain that sells burrito’s and taco’s. They currently operate around 1.700 restaurants throughout the US, Canada and a few in Europe.  So far nothing special here. What distinguishes founder Steve Ells – originally a trained chef – and his team from others in the fast food business is their commitment to only serve ‘Food With Integrity’. This commitment means that they source all their burrito and taco ingredients locally and organically. But there’s more. Chipotle’s says its mission is to “change the way people think about and eat fast food”.

A mission, we now know, has made them very successful. (Look here if you want figures). However, when Ells initially started talking about his beliefs on sustainable farming, his customers weren’t all that interested in his message. How to talk about animal welfare, environmental impact and sustainable agriculture when people just want a good taco served quickly?

1. Move and teach

Chipotle’s chief marketing officer Mark Crumpacker said in an interview with Fast Company. “As people come to be more interested in where their food comes from, they will seek out better quality food.” Great, but how to get them interested in the first place? Chipotle’s answer is entertainment. Or actually illuminating people through entertainment. They put their messages about sustainable farming in entertaining, fun to watch, content. They tell stories. Take people on a  journey. A journey that moves you and teaches you (about the issues of the food system) at the same time.

In 2011 Chipotle released its first 2 minute short film ‘Back to the start’. It  shows the journey of a farmer as he slowly transforms his family farm into an industrial animal factory before realizing the error of his ways. He reverses the process and goes back to natural and a more humane way of farming. The film shows Chipotle’s ‘why’, its purpose. When watching it you immediately understand what is meant by ‘Food with Integrity’ and why it is important to them. It’s a simple and compelling story.

What is so clever about the film is that it not only hits right in the hearts of the values-driven Millennials generation but also reaches those that would ordinarily never tune into these kind of issues. ‘Back to the start’ was viewed and shared by millions of people. Same goes for the ‘Scarecrow’, another 2- minute film released in 2013, to introduce a (online) game designed to ‘bring real food back to the people’. Watching it – and hearing Fiona Apple’s performance of ‘Pure imagination’- will give you goose bumps and make you vow never to buy industrially processed foods again.

With these short films Chipotle proves to be an excellent teacher. Good teachers know how to identify with the person they are trying to teach: someone who isn’t yet convinced in any way, who doesn’t at all yet know why something matters. All though you yourself have long been informed and convinced about a certain subject. Teaching requires a surprising act of imagination, and translation: one has to imagine (or just remember) what it felt like not to know or care. (Thanks to Book of Life for sharing this wisdom!) By using entertainment, or storytelling, Chipotle taught millions of people about the complex issues of the food industry. And by educating them on the subject, the company realizes a shift in perspective and awareness on (fast) food.

2. Be personally relevant

So will this awareness make people rush of to one of the Chipotle restaurants to eat a taco?

Some people definitely will. But lots of research has shown that most people, when asked, say they want to do the ‘right’ thing. But when it comes to actually making a choice, lots of other (more short term) concerns – such as price, quality, convenience or status– act up and influence buying behaviour. They tend to look foremost at what benefits their personal needs. To what is relevant for their personal lives.

Chipotle ingredients are better

That’s when the second lesson to be learned becomes clear; Chipotle never fails to emphasize that their focus on sustainable farming is not just because it is the right thing to do but also – and maybe even foremost – because it assures them of the BEST ingredients to make DELICIOUS food. For YOU. They want to make “great food affordable and accessible so everyone can eat better”. By focusing on the quality aspect  – better ingredients as a result of sustainable farming – they make it directly relevant and beneficial for you as a customer.

What’s in it for me?

So, what’s the outtake here.  As a sustainable brand, eager to share your credentials, you have to ask yourself:

1. Do people know why my sustainability story matters?

Do they know what the problem is? If no, illuminate them! Teach them! But make sure your message is wrapped in interesting content. Content that serves the audience and not you (the sender). Makes sure it does something positive – entertain, move, make a person look cool or smart – for people at the receiving end. Any message you convey, should always be told with the interest of the audience in mind. The ones that are reading, watching or listening to what you have to say. In our current information overload era, people’s attention spans are very short. We are constantly scanning information, online or elsewhere, for relevance to ourselves and our lives. Unconsciously we are always thinking ‘What’s in it for me?’ What does this piece of information do for me, for my life?

2. In what way is my sustainability story beneficial to my customers? 

To most people sustainability is a pretty vague concept, having to do something with saving the planet or poor people. Sure they want a better world without pollution, injustice or poverty (who wouldn’t?) but at the end of the day keeping your own life on track can be hard enough as it is. It’s not that people don’t care, but saving the world just isn’t a top priority in their daily lives. As a company you therefore have to make sure that it is clear how your sustainability efforts benefit peoples lives.  That’s why Mark Crumpacker never gets tired of saying Chipotle is all about  “great food affordable and accessible so everyone can eat better”

The trick here of course is really knowing what people want. Get to know the person on the receiving end of your message! What are their dreams, fears, annoyances? What do they love? What do they care or worry about? Tune into them. Listen to them. And use those insights to tell your sustainability story the right way.


  1. Great explanation you give how the mission gets relevant for customers. thank you Colette!

    • Happy to hear! Thanks!


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