Whether or not you believe that “corporations are people, too,” as Mitt Romney does, more and more brands are, indeed, expected to act as citizens who are accountable for their actions. The demands for brands to be socially responsible has companies bouncing like pinballs as they react to the size of their carbon footprint, their percent of recommended daily allowance of fat, sugar or salt, or the working conditions in factories owned by their vendors overseas.
“Would you like socially conscious fries with that?”
While many brands may have one or two issues to deal with, consider what a company like McDonald’s is facing. According to its many detractors, the Golden Arches generates far too many low-wage, no-benefit jobs; too many high-fat, high-calorie meals served with high-sugar drinks; and mountains of trash from its wrappers, cups and straws. Bear in mind that none of these criticisms (accusations would be more accurate in some cases) involve any illegal activity. But today’s consumers are empowered by digital technology that can turn an isolated incident into a mini uproar using nothing more than a cell phone and a hastily assembled Facebook page. So brands are forced to react.
Chipotle makes an interesting case in point. (Incidentally, McDonald’s corporation was once an investor in the brand.) Chipotle has staked out an ambitious territory, signed with the slogan, “Food with integrity.” Chipotle goes all-out to emphasize that they avoid genetically modified organisms in their ingredients, which when you put it that way, sounds like something out of a “Bladerunner” movie. They are highly critical of factory farming and the treatment of animals in these facilities, and have produced elaborate videos to explain this to their customer base.
So Chipotle brand loyalists likely expect that the burrito they ate for lunch was made with organically grown veggies from a nearby farm and a healthy amount of free-range beef from a cow who romped through the pasture by day and curled up on a fresh bed of hay at night. See, that warm feeling isn’t just from the hot sauce made from naturally-grown jalapenos. This is a brand built from the ground up to be brilliantly, almost effortlessly socially responsible. But is it real?
Mother Jones goes behind the burrito
Maybe not. In an article last September, entitled “Behind the burrito” Mother Jones questioned the veracity of the Chipotle brand concept. Their investigation turned up plenty of evidence that, while Chipotle’s language was artfully written to cover their bases, perception and reality didn’t meet. Mother Jones points out that Chipotle’s own website admits that most of their products actually do contain genetically modified organisms. While some of their meat comes from farms with supposedly more humane conditions for the animals, the space, light and food quality is often exaggerated or only available to a few of the creatures. And, while locally grown was a major part of their message, only onions, avocados, peppers, tomatoes, jalapenos, and cilantro were locally sourced, and even then only some of the time. The reality, Mother Jones asserts, is that while Chipotle talks a good game, there is simply not enough naturally-grown products available to them in all the right places to make their claims as real as they appear.
Let’s say Chipotle is spinning its brand a little too far and McDonald’s is a willing accomplice to obesity and heart disease. The question for both brands is, who really cares? There are certainly plenty of customers who will eat their products because they taste good, toss a pile of trash in the can, and get on with their lives. Understanding what criticisms to react to and which ones to hold off from is a tricky process. After all, few consumers would say they were against the humane treatment of animals in a survey, but they aren’t asking about their cheeseburger’s backstory at the drive-thru, either.
Chipotle has built a brand that sounds socially responsible and is working, so far. McDonald’s is making adjustments with healthier cooking fats, posting of calories on menu boards, and most recently a slimmed down, physically active Ronald McDonald. Brands like these have to make good judgments about what is a passing fad and what is an undeniable trend. Even then, the evolution to a more socially sensitive brand concept can take time and draw continued criticism.
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal and Lehigh Valley Business.