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Oct 17, 2002
Case Study

McDonald's Chipotle Restaurants Revamp Site & Email Campaigns to Maximize Viral Pass-Along

SUMMARY: "It looked like a heavy metal band's site," Chipotle's email manager Joe Stupp describes the restaurant chain's Web site before its big revamp this summer.

Even with a bad site, they got a heck of a lot of visitor email. They focused their revamp and subsequent email marketing campaigns on taking advantage of it. If you copywrite email marketing campaigns, you will enjoy the sample copy in this Case Study. If you are in charge of email customer service, you absolutely have to check this thing out.

Dan Fogarty, Director Propaganda & Manipulation (yes that is his real title), for McDonald's hip burrito chain Chipotle, received far more customer email from the chain's Web site than anyone ever expected.

Fogarty explains, “Customers were begging to get on an email list, they wanted to be notified of store openings and special events. It was like they were saying, please spam me.”

“We knew there had to be a positive way to tap into and strengthen the relationship with customers emailing in again and again.” Chipotle did not have a mailing list to add these names to.

As the chain grew this summer, the marketing team wanted to revamp the Web site because they needed a base for a consistent brand message as they expanded into new markets. Site's success depended on maintaining a quirky personality Chipotle's customers had come to love.

For example, the restaurants' outdoor ads picture their notorious 20oz burritos next to copy reading, “It’s Like One of Those Freaky Dreams Where Everything is Really Big.”

The goal going forward, Fogarty says, “We wanted to make sure we continued that vibe online.” And take advantage of the power of email.


Three months ago, Chipotle made six major changes to its Web site:

#1. Dramatically revamped look and feel

The previous site was black with a lot of chrome metal colors. Joe Stupp Manager, Gripes and Happiness Division (yes another real title) describes the change, “It looked like a heavy metal band's site. So with the new one, we wanted more whimsy, more fun, and a simple and open white-space look with less busy garbage floating around. It also had to be uniform with our visual advertising.”

#2. HTML to Flash

Although Macromedia (the company that invented Flash) advises that it be used with moderation so visitors can navigate a site easily, and search engines such as Google are notorious for not listing Flash-based sites, Chipotle's Web team felt their demographic of hip 20-somethings would appreciate a Flash site.

(Caution: Kids, do not try this at home without audience pre-testing and watching metrics like a hawk.)

#3. No scrolling

Every single page was revised to be fully visible on an average-sized monitor set for viewing at 600x800. People do not like to scroll, now they do not have to.

#4. Cutting out the less-popular content

Chipotle's Web designed followed what we were calling the big trend of late 2002. Slashing back less important content to focus on the good stuff. Numerous pages of the story line were dropped and a food section was added to highlight the ingredients, the menu, and the ordering process.

#5. Samples of ads added to site

The marketing team hoped to get much of their traffic from viral friends telling friends.

Aside from finding a location, there is no big reason for a consumer to visit a chain restaurant site online unless they have some time to kill. Luckily those same hip 20-somethings often sat around bored in their office cubes, instant messaging their pals to visit cool sites.

Chipotle added a new site section called "Play" which features almost 150 samples of various humorous Chipotle ads. Even if you are not in advertising, they are indeed fun to play.

#6. Adding a Photo of the Email Guy to the "Speak" form

The site's “Speak” customer feedback page features a big picture of Joe Stupp, the guy who single-handedly answers all of the consumer email. As Fogarty describes it, “Joe’s huge, ugly mug pops up on the screen so customers know they have a real person to write.”

Originally, Joe was the second store manager. But Fogarty says Joe’s personality combined with the fact that he’s a 6’5” goofy looking guy, made him a natural extension of the brand. “If I were to create a guy synthetically to represent us, unfortunately, it would look exactly like him.”

It helps that Joe is a great writer. Fogarty notes, “His responses have a lot of wit and intelligence, and most are pithy, cynical or sarcastic. People are blown away by his answers, not only because he responds so quickly but by the personality. He makes fun of the situation and he has unlimited powers to do whatever he can to make people happy.”

Visitors can use one of two forms in the Speak section to communicate. The first is a "Comment" form which also invites them to take their choice of two options:

a. “Join the Chipotle email list” or
b. “Crush Joe with a massive burrito.”

When you submit a comment, “Burp, we’ll talk soon,” pops on the screen from Joe. Shortly (within a few hours), instead of a cut-and-paste corporate sort of response, Joe writes back a personal email, signed “Joe Stupp, Manager, Duct Tape and Plungers,” or “Manager, Gripes and Happiness Division.”

The second Speak section is the "Tune In" form, which visitors can use to join an email list to be notified of store openings and special parties.

This form's privacy statement says, “We promise not send too many messages to you (honestly), since we hate spam-mail as much as the next guy. We will not sell or rent your address to anyone else. This is just between us, you and me. And you can call me Joe.”

As the revamped site launched, the marketing team next turned their focus onto email marketing to their newly databased list.

Joe Stupp creates email campaigns to announce various events and store openings. The campaigns are extremely simple, almost mysterious. Sometimes the messages do not reveal much more than the city, though most include a picture or reference to Stupp.

For example, a message to promote a “Free Burrito Day” campaign in Minneapolis was “purposefully more like a whisper,” Fogarty notes. This is all it said:

Join us on Saturday, July 20th from 11 am to 2 pm
at Robert St. & Marie
and we'll give you a

Another example. Stupp wrote two emails for a launch in Madison, Wisconsin. The first included a single picture of the construction site and said “Chipotle Coming to Madison!”

In the second, Stupp wrote that he was flying to Madison a week ahead of time and would be in front of the new location (still being built) wearing a hard hat, drinking a case of beer and giving away coupons for free burritos. (Now that is a hard offer for a hip Wisconsin 20-something to resist.)


In the three months since Chipotle's revamped site launched, traffic has more than doubled. “Our [visitors] have gone through the damn roof,” says Fogarty.

On average, Stupp answers twice as many customer comments each day, and in three months the database has grown to 6,700 purely opt-in names.

Fogarty notes, “Since Joe personally handles the 'Speak,' sometimes he is still writing responses to customers at 2 am. I don’t know what’s weirder, people asking questions at that time or Joe sitting there answering them.”

Chipotle measures success in terms of the strength of store openings. Since they only use viral email marketing to promote openings, how many people show up is the best way to see how well the customer feedback section is working.

“A lot is anecdotal,” Fogarty adds. “But the reason viral marketing works for us is because word of mouth has been our marketing strategy since day one. It just fits our personality.”

It also helps when sites like Macromedia and Yahoo feature Chipotle as their Site of the Day. Fogarty says, “Afterwards people wrote in who had never heard of us before. We got email from Denmark, South Africa, South America, and they told two friends, and they told two friends. This Internet thing … it’s really catching on.”

Link to sample email creative:
See Also:

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