By Bruce Horovitz | USA TODAY
Chipotle is about to turn the ad world on its head — even as it smacks Big Food in the chops.
On Thursday, the Millennial-friendly Mexican food chain will post "The Scarecrow," a Big-Food-mocking 3½-minute animated video ad — and make available a free downloadable, interactive game on the topic. The twist: Both have virtually no Chipotle branding.
Chipotle's name shows up — in small print — only in the game's introduction, and its logo is displayed only after the video is over.
The move precedes a series of four, TV show-length Big-Food-busting dark comedies, Farmed and Dangerous, that Chipotle will post online sometime in 2014. For Chipotle, it's all about linking its name with the strong Millennial values to eat better, eat local — and brand lightly. It's all in the hopes that Millennials — who are the heart of Chipotle's target customer — will make Chipotle's better-for-you messaging go viral.
"We're trying to educate people about where their food comes from," says Mark Crumpacker, chief marketing officer at Chipotle. But, he says, Millennials "are skeptical of brands that perpetuate themselves."
Both the game and film depict a scarecrow's journey to bring wholesome food back to the people by providing an alternative to the processed food that dominates his world. The film is set in a spooky, fantasy world where all food production is controlled by fictional industrial food giant Crow Foods, run by evil crows.
"The crows control the scarecrows," says Crumpacker. "It's a parallel of the industrial food system in the U.S., which is upside down."
The Crow Foods factory is staffed by scarecrows who have been displaced from their traditional jobs on the farm and are now relegated to working for the crows by helping them maintain their unsustainable processed food system.
The game and the film were created with Academy Award-winning Moonbot Studios. Chipotle will be giving away up to 1 million buy-one-get-one offers to consumers who successfully play the game.
The great irony: McDonald's once held a majority ownership stake in Chipotle — which it divested in 2006. So Chipotle has certainly seen Mickey D's — which might seem to be one of the unnamed targets of this video — up close and personal.
But will the video — and game — be a hit with Millennials? Two marketing gurus have mixed minds.
"Chipotle's marketing strategy makes sense because the ecosystem of advertising has fundamentally changed," says brand consultant David Vinjamuri. "Chipotle is relying on social messengers to connect the message to the brand."
But will that sell more burritos?
One marketing professor has his doubts. Sure, it will likely attract lots of downloads, says David Stewart, marketing professor at Loyola Marymount University. "But hiding a brand name, especially in the digital world, is probably not a way to grow sales."