Why Chipotle and Kacey Musgraves are going to rock your Thanksgiving

Back in 2011, Chipotle launched a brand campaign called “Cultivate a Better World,” aiming to raise awareness and affinity for the brand’s commitment to high-quality ingredients, family farms, and sustainable agriculture. The crown jewel was a cute, stop-motion short film called “Back to the Start,” featuring a Willie Nelson cover of the Coldplay hit “The Scientist.” After first exploding online, the brand used it as its first-ever national TV ad by airing it in its two-minute entirety during the 2012 Grammys.

Created by CAA Marketing (now a separate agency called Observatory), the film was a bonafide hit, drawing millions of views and reams of national news coverage while also collecting armloads of ad industry awards.

Now, a decade later, the brand is doing what one does in 2021 when you have an entertainment property with any residual cultural goodwill: It’s launching a sequel. The new piece, “A Future Begins,” takes us back to the original farm and family, and the challenges of becoming a young farmer, all set to a Kacey Musgraves cover version of Coldplay’s “Fix You.”

Chipotle chief marketing officer Chris Brandt joined the company in 2018, so he wasn’t around for “Back to the Start.” But he certainly remembers it. “I thought it was amazing,” says Brandt, who has previously served as chief brand officer at Bloomin Brands (the parent company of Outback Steakhouse) and Taco Bell. “I thought then, and still think, it’s the best piece of creative ever done in the restaurant space. It really showed the essence of what Chipotle was about, in terms of its food with integrity, devotion to sustainable farming practices, and really captured this idea of Chipotle in a way that didn’t feel like advertising.”

The brand has long supported farmers, not only through its supply chain but also with it’s Cultivate Foundation. The foundation’s focus this year has been to support the next generation of farmers. Brandt says that the average farmer is almost 60 years old, and the company is looking ahead to an impending generational transition in farmland. In partnership with the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), Chipotle is advocating for policy change in the 2023 Farm Bill. As part of this campaign, Chipotle is asking its fans to donate to the NYFC through the brand’s round-up feature, as well as to sign the NYFC’s petition asking Congress to invest $2.5 billion to secure 1 million acres for young farmers and farmers of color.

“We want to support young farmers because they tend to use more sustainable practices, responsible agriculture, more organic farming, and that sort of thing,” says Brandt. “Given the challenges farming is facing, we thought about what we could do to raise awareness, and we wanted to pay homage to the previous work by making a sequel.”

The new film was created by the same agency, Observatory, and the stop-motion production company Nexus Studios. The latter features heavily in a 10-minute, behind-the-scenes video that the brand produced. But a sequel wasn’t always on the table. Observatory CEO Jae Goodman says that the initial brief from Brandt was to restate the brand’s purpose, that it’s as committed today to cultivating a better world as it’s ever been. “If we’re going to restate our purpose around cultivating a better world, forgive the phrase, but let’s go back to the start,” says Goodman. “Let’s go back to that farmer who turned that factory farm back into a family farm.”

It also wasn’t a given that the soundtrack would be another Coldplay cover. The original was one of the only instances where the band has commercially licensed a song. Goodman says that Observatory searched for another song to fit the sequel but kept coming back to “Fix You.” After watching an early rough cut of the film, the band agreed to having its song used. Goodman calls Musgraves the perfect young, country-pop cross-over artist to bring it to life. “I think the music here drives home the emotional impact,” adds Brandt.

A lot has happened to Chipotle as a brand in the last decade, not the least of which has been being plunged into and then emerging from a food-safety scandal that brought to light the company’s Food with Integrity initiative was more marketing than brand purpose. More recently, it’s been playing the role of model marketer, leading the way on how a brand can and should interact with culture. From becoming the most followed brand on TikTok, hosting a job fair on Discord, and giving away $100,000 worth of bitcoin to opening a restaurant inside the Roblox metaverse—Brandt says that these moves come from a core strategy of always looking for new ways to make Chipotle more visible, more relevant, and more beloved, while creating content that actually fits the audience and how they use each platform.

Given how our media consumption habits have evolved over the past decade, perhaps one of the biggest surprises is that the brand is also harking back to that original format of a two-minute long ad with a good ol’ fashioned, high-profile TV drop. “A Future Begins” launches online today but will then make its broadcast debut on Thanksgiving Day during the NFL’s Raiders-Cowboys game on CBS. For a limited time, Chipotle is also slapping every food order bag with mini-movie poster stickers, featuring a QR code that links to the ad.

“We’re always looking for the integration between Chipotle and culture, and to show up a little bit differently than everybody else,” says Brandt. “We try to balance between building sales for today, and building the brand over time. This is clearly a brand-over-time effort. The biggest challenge is making something that can stand next to that [past] work and feel as good, impactful, and fun.”