Innovator Interviews: QSR & Fast Casual - Stephanie Perdue

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Stephanie Perdue, VP-Brand Marketing at Chipotle, is working with her team to ensure the brand is able to pivot its marketing messaging at a time when needs change daily. 

By now we all know the restaurant industry has been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 crisis, which has forced many restaurants to close their doors. Even those that have been able to remain open for delivery or takeout -- and many of those are the big chains-- are facing significant drops of revenue without customers dining in their restaurants. Indeed, the forecast for the industry is concerning: Technomic estimates that industry sales are expected to decline somewhere between 11.4% and 27.1%, depending on the length of the shutdown and economic downturn. 

Many fast food and fast-casual chains have been able to operate on a slimmed-down takeout and delivery model, requiring significant pivots for those brands. They’ve also had to pivot their marketing and media strategies, requiring swift reactions to ensure they are getting the right messages out at the right time.

Given the huge impact COVID-19 is having on restaurants, Brand Innovators is launching a new series dedicated to innovators in the space. It will be published every other week and will focus on forward-thinking marketers who are finding new ways to reach customers. Many of the pieces will be focused on coronavirus, at least in the short term, as nearly every restaurant is irrevocably impacted by it. 

For the first installment in the series, Brand Innovators is featuring Chipotle’s Stephanie Perdue, Vice President of Brand Marketing. Perdue very much understands challenges marketing execs face, let alone during a crisis like this. As a longtime restaurant marketing executive, Perdue has worked with some of the biggest brands in the space, including Taco Bell and TGI Friday’s. It is at the former where she worked with several executives who are now all back together again at Chipotle, including CEO Brian Niccol, CMO Chris Brandt and VP-Digital and Off-Premise Tressie Lieberman. Moving her way up to VP-Marketing at Taco Bell, Perdue worked on a number of Taco Bell’s most innovative campaigns, including those for its giant breakfast launch.

For its part, Chipotle has announced a number of marketing initiatives and relief aid in response to coronavirus. First it announced it was giving away burritos to medical staff and offered its new quest blanco for free with online orders. In mid-March, in an effort to provide entertainment for those of us hunkering down at home, it announced its “Chipotle Together” series, which are online Zoom gatherings that allowed viewers to mingle with celebrities. Later in March Chipotle announced the 2020 version of its “Chipotle Challenger Series,” an esports competition that provides a platform for esports fans to connect with gaming celebrities. (More on all this below.)

Brand Innovators checked in with Perdue to get a sense of how she is approaching her job and how she is strategizing the company’s broader marketing messages at a time when needs change daily. The below is edited for clarity. 

Q: How are you approaching your marketing strategy, messaging and ad spending at a time when we don't know how long this crisis will last? 

Stephanie Perdue: Our marketing strategy is focused on what makes Chipotle different. For example, our values as a purpose driven brand, our real ingredients, introducing new menu innovation like Queso Blanco, driving Chipotle’s digital business through mobile pick-up, delivery and rewards, and connecting to culture. During this time, getting real, healthy food delivered fast, fresh and personalized has never been more relevant.  

We quickly pivoted to ensure access to the touch points consumers care most about right now – delivery, mobile pick-up and carry-out. We’ve adjusted all creative to reflect free delivery messaging, and reevaluated our media spend to allocate funds across streaming, social and other relevant digital platforms.


Chipotle Together is a series of virtual hangouts launched during shelter-in-place orders that connects people with celebrities, athletes and musicians.

Q: What activations that you've done so far related to COVID-19 have resonated with consumers the most? 

SP: We quickly created Chipotle Together, virtual hangouts with celebrities, athletes and musicians to give fans a chance to connect, access to exclusive content and of course, free burrito giveaways. Some of our most popular guests have included Luke Bryan, Kaskade and The Gronk.

We launched our second annual esports competition online in April to give up-and-coming gamers the opportunity to play with their favorite pro gamers, pro athletes, musicians, and celebrities.  Registrations are underway and the finale on April 25th will be broadcast on Twitch and YouTube.

On National Burrito Day, we announced a program to donate 100,000 burritos to healthcare heroes – all delivered during World Health Worker Week. The engagement and support for this program exceeded our expectations.

Chipotle launched a new egift card program also benefiting our healthcare heroes where Chipotle will donate 10% of special egift card purchases to DIRECT RELIEF, an organization working to provide personal protective equipment and essential medical items to healthcare workers in the U.S. and around the world.

Q: How does the long-term prospect for the restaurant/fast-casual industry affect how you are marketing in the short-term? 

SP: Currently we are focused on today’s climate. As things evolve and the industry or consumer’s needs change, we will evaluate the situation and marketing strategy. 

Q: How are you balancing short-term marketing and immediate comms needs with long-term marketing goals/needs? Do you have an example of long-term marketing needs that you are ensuring don't get lost as you address critical immediate needs?

SP: Chipotle will continue to focus on our brand values and maintain our purpose to Cultivate a Better World. We are focused on ensuring communities know they can rely on Chipotle for fresh, real food and have the ability to enjoy that food in a way that is most convenient for them (i.e. delivery, mobile pick-up, carryout) and employees have a safe place to work with a company who will invest in their wellbeing. Our team is incredibly nimble and because of that we have found creative solutions to continue momentum on existing projects in a new way, like virtually streaming our eSports Chipotle Challenger Series partnership and the ability to launch completely new programs that ladder up to our larger purpose like our Burritos for Healthcare Heroes program.

Q: What would your advice be to other marketers on how to address marketing challenges during this time?

SP: I recommend staying flexible, listening intently to how consumers are feeling and understanding how their behaviors have shifted and continue to shift, and where your brand plays an authentic and credible role in their lives. Consumers are passionate about supporting brands that are doing the right thing in the right way.

This Q&A is the first in a new editorial series, our Innovator Interviews, which will dive into "QSR and Fast Casual" and "Cultural Marketing" and then expand into other verticals.

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