Beautiful and Haunting Scarecrows Transform Chipotle’s Marketing

Sometimes, the line between great marketing and great film is a blur.

“The Scarecrow,” a 3-minute animated film from Chipotle, takes users on an emotional journey to the heart of modern agriculture. The setting is lush and seductive, green pastures and quaint farm houses sit near the facade of a grim industrial operation. Our protaganist, the Scarecrow, travels back home to discover the joy of lush red peppers and locally grown food.

The whole adventure is set to Fiona Apple’s cover of the Willy Wonka tune “Pure Imagination.”

Chipotle’s film is all but absent of branded content, save for the last few moments of the film. That’s because Chipotle didn’t want to distract from the real message. Industrial-produced food laden with exorbitant amounts of pesticides and hormones are not only harmful to our health but the environment and animals as well.

Communicating with this sort of magical subtlety is something we admire here at the Altitude Group and recent projects with the University of Phoenix and Fiat show some of the ways that we work with brands in unconventional ways. Similarly, with this campaign, Chipotle messaging has transcended straightforward product description to become a poetic example of cause marketing done right.

That message is one that has been gaining traction with consumers over the past decade. Here in New York City,  farmer’s markets where consumers can buy locally produced food can be found in nearly every neighborhood.  More and more supermarkets now have organic sections and fast casual chains like Chipotle are outpacing the rest of the food industry in growth.

So it’s no surprise then that Chipotle’s mini-film was a hit. But perhaps no one was prepared for how massively it would resonate. “The Scarecrow” boasts over 6.8 million YouTube views and its companion mobile game garnered 1 million downloads despite only being available for Apple’s iOS. 250,000 of those downloads were in the first four days alone.

In a behind-the-scenes interview with The Week, Brandon Oldenburg and Limbert Fabian, the short’s co-directors, discussed the vision behind the campaign, its almost instant viral impact and what it’s like to work with a brand that supports such outside-the-box marketing.

OLDENBURG: Limbert and I — for the past 15 years of our commercial experiences, we’ve never had a client like this, ever, be so collaborative and so on-point with their notes. Every time they went back to us, saying, “You know, guys, maybe we should change this,” it was like, they were so dead-on correct and right… Everybody on this team is like, “This is unheard of.”

In all the years in our experience of working in commercial production, we’ve never seen anything quite like this.

The co-directors also discussed the over 100 story synopses that went into making the short. Every detail of plot point and character motivation was considered and reconsidered.

LINDBERG: There was a time where there was a bad guy. There were these masked scientists that were working behind the scenes — you never saw their faces and they were controlling the machinery, and it just seemed too complex to have another sort of character in our world. We’ve got the citizens — the consumers — you’ve got the crows, and you’ve got the scarecrows. It was like a lightning bolt for us when we were looking at scarecrows and it was like, “Scarecrows, why don’t we make them the farmer?” Make them the definition of what the farm is and this idea of farms, and sort of imbue that all onto the scarecrow.

The creative vision is stunning in its efficacy and originality, but in some ways, what’s most compelling about the campaign is its innovative approach to reaching Millennials. The short is almost entirely free of explicit branding. It relies on social media to spread its message. And touting retail purchases takes a back seat to promoting the addictive iOS app.

While some critics were quick to accuse Chipotle of being disingenuous, their strong track record shows otherwise. Earlier this year, Chipotle committed to removing all genetically modified foods from their menu. And, as The Guardian notes, their “Food with Integrity” campaign is devoted towards only using food that is raised with “respect for the animals, the environment and farmers.”

As part of the “Food with Integrity” campaign, Chipotle has set strict guidelines for how pigs, cows and chickens are raised. Those guidelines demand that animals are raised humanely, not cramped into tiny cages and filthy pens. Chipotle admits it hasn’t been easy. In the case of their cows, convincing farmers to give their cows access to outdoor pastures has been a struggle.

It’s a message that resonates with us here at CBS Radio and our dedication to promoting local advertising and business on a national scale. It’s why in 2010 we acquired Ecomedia, a company that harnesses the power of advertising for social change, and why we will continue to get involved with great projects that make a difference both locally and nationally.

No other fast casual restaurant that owns the organic space quite the way that Chipotle does.  Wouldn’t it be great if more Fortune 500 marketers took note?