Chipotle's marketing magic: If your brand is troubled, rock music to the rescue

A new ad enlists Jim James and Brittany Howard to cover Backstreet Boys—and shine the company's indie image

By Scott Timberg
July 7, 2016 8:54PM (UTC)
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Jim James, Brittany Howard (AP/Owen Sweeney/Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

A young boy and girl pursue their dreams, finding a way to channel their love of making fresh-squeezed juices into healthy businesses. But before long, runaway growth has led them into running faceless corporate businesses and peddling phony ingredients. The two fall in love, realize that returning to their roots, going small, and selling healthy food out of a taco truck is the way to go. A campaign spot for Bernie Sanders? A documentary funded by Michael Pollan and Alice Waters?

Weirdly, it’s an ad for Chipotle, the enormous Mexican-food chain that was for years part owned by McDonald’s and has had problems with food-borne illness since at least 2008. Perhaps even stranger, the music behind it comes from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard covering an overplayed and gooey Backstreet Boys song, "I Want It That Way."


The whole thing, then, is pretty confounding. So what’s going on?

Chipotle has more than 2,000 locations, and earned $4.5 billion in revenues last year, but it still imagines itself a scruffy upstart crusading for the triumph of healthy food. It’s tried to come up with all kinds of ways to distinguish itself from chains like Taco Bell and Burger King. In 2014 it began its “Cultivating Thought Author Series,” printing words of wisdom from Jonathan Safran Foer, Toni Morrison, and George Saunders on cups and to-go bags. It’s taken out ads about its “food with integrity” commitment and has stopped selling genetically modified ingredients. It’s been giving out free food, in certain circumstances, for almost two decades now.

For every step toward indie credibility, though, Chipotle has been publicly criticized or seen a health crisis – hepatitis, norovirus, E. coli – crop up. Is the solution better food-safety habits by employees? More oversight of the meat and produce that comes into the stores? Less salt and high-calorie ingredients?


It turns out the answer is: rock ‘n’ roll cool.

Chipotle has already hired Fiona Apple and Willie Nelson to record commercials. Its use of the singers for My Morning Jacket and Alabama Shakes is a perfect bit of marketing symbolism. Both bands are beloved by critics and music insiders; they have substantial fan bases but have not become so big they’ve inspired a U2-like backlash. And though their music can be eclectic, both bands are considered earthy: The Louisville-based MMJ have a lot of alt-country twang, and Alabama Shakes are, ultimately, a blues-rock band. These are bands – and singers – whose music is not only strong and original, it’s considered “honest.” MMJ and Howard have previously covered a luminous song by The Band, “It Makes No Difference”: It doesn’t get much more earthy and sincere than that.

For what it’s worth, the latest video was set in motion before last year’s Salmonella and E. coli outbreaks. But if you’re a company looking to reassure consumers that you mean what you say, this combination is about as good as it gets.


As for why Chipotle used a song by the notorious Backstreet Boys instead of something better? That’s still puzzling, unless it’s a big for millenials who fell for the song as kids. It’s a big improvement on the original – James and Howard have two of the best voices in music today, and while their version of the song certainly sounds like a commercial, it’s not overwrought and saccharine like the 1999 original.

The idea of Chipotle as having anything to do with a taco truck is a bit over the top. Despite the lack of sense here, I’m going to try to enjoy this as a summer pleasure. There is so much vile in the world right now that we all need something to smile about. So if this video makes you forgive Chipotle for its spotty health record, or makes you want to “Join Our Summer Rewards Program,” be my guest. Just make sure your immune system is in good shape – you may need it.

Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Alabama Shakes Backstreet Boys Chipotle Fast Food Jonathan Safran Foer Media Critcism My Morning Jacket