Chipotle does the right thing…as the mainstream tide turns

Wherever you look these days, mainstream brands are engaging in initiatives or taking a stand on issues that were once considered “social or environmental causes of fringe groups”. Social media has given activists a voice and platform to reach the masses like never before. And whether or not there is enough hard data or scientific evidence to categorically support their causes, there are most certainly enough unanswered questions around issues such as the safety of GMO’s, artificial ingredients such as aspartame, red dye 40, and the prolific use of pesticides and herbicides like glyphosate, to name a few. Consumers are no longer in the dark and are asking questions, reluctant to blindly believe the safety claims of corporations. As such, many iconic brands like McDonalds and Pepsi find themselves directly impacted by this growing sentiment. And more than ever before, it is a case of “adapt or die”. There are many examples of brands that have been proactive, or at the very least, quick to respond. Yesterday Chipotle announced that 100% of their ingredients are now non-GMO. On the same day, Pepsi announced that they will no longer use aspartame in Diet Pepsi. And in January 2014, General Mills announced that Cheerios will be GMO free.

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For brands like Chipotle, these moves are not surprising because they directly correspond with the brand DNA, the original vision of the brand at inception. For others like Pepsi, they are a reaction to declining sales and a necessary step to halt that decline by winning back lost users and maybe even attracting new users. Still others embark on initiatives as a result of poor scores on industry watchdog reports and the resulting media and consumer backlash, e.g. earlier this month, KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell announced that they have committed to deforestation-free palm oil after a 2014 Union of Concerned Scientists report highlighted that the fast food industry had the weakest standards regarding this issue. McDonalds has not been quite as responsive to the trends and as a result, is in big trouble. As the 100lb gorilla in the fast food industry, perhaps they thought they could bully their way through the consumer sentiment by offering more versions of their cheap meals…more of the same. Somewhere along the way, they lost sight of their brand essence – “fast foods served consistently with home-from-home values”, expressed as “i’m lovin’ it”. The fact of the matter is that with knowledge and more information about where our food comes from, how it is made and the impact on the environment and our health, consumers are no longer “lovin’ it”. McDonalds now has to play catch up, as announced by the new CEO, Steve Easterbrook who said in a statement, “McDonald’s management team is keenly focused on acting more quickly to better address today’s consumer needs, expectations and the competitive marketplace.”

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Some brands are taking on causes that are less directly linked to their products but undoubtedly tap into consumer awareness and concern about environmental and social issues with the obvious intention of generating brand goodwill…and because it’s the right thing to do. For example, J.Crew launched a Save the Bees campaign, donating 50% of proceeds from the sale of an exclusive line of t-shirts to Xerces Society, an Oregon-based nonprofit for wildlife and its habitat. This initiative is part of their Garments for Good program. It’s worth noting that the t-shirts are made of linen which is an environmentally, and therefore, bee-friendly alternative to cotton. Similarly, Adidas has partnered with Parley for the Oceans to develop materials made from ocean plastic waste, while Stella Artois has partnered with Water.org and donated $1.2 million to date to provide communities with access to clean water. Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan includes multiple initiatives, both environmental and social demonstrating a company-wide commitment to doing the right thing.

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Doing the right thing is obviously good for the planet and good for society, but brand performance results across many industries in recent years shows that it is also good for business.

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