Why companies like Chipotle thrive in courting the conscientious consumer

A branding problem.
A branding problem.
Image: Reuters/Nacho Doce
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More curious than hungry, I found myself at McDonald’s recently. Not usually prone to Big Mac cravings, I admired the new neutral-toned furnishings, subtle lighting, classy uniforms—and looked for a reason to place an order at the counter. Faced with only a range of suspicious  reconstituted meats and other overly processed options, I left empty-handed.

Later, my curiosity took me onto the company’s website, where I found a vast collection of ambiguous achievements and vague commitments to “make sustainability the new normal.” The corporate spiel conveyed a general sense of do-goodery at odds with my actual experience in the restaurant.

The same scene plays out at many big consumer brands. Pledges and policies aren’t for nothing, but companies like McDonald’s, with well-staffed corporate social responsibility departments, extensive sustainability reporting, and worthy citizenship initiatives all too often miss the point. These things are rarely of benefit to customers. And anything that customers don’t value, and choose to buy as a result, is of limited use to a business.

Compare my experience at Chipotle. On entering, I was greeted by the fast food chain’s mission on a sign that takes pride of place ahead of its menu—“We serve ingredients raised with respect for animals, farmers and the environment.” The company’s clearly articulated philosophy, identifiable ingredients at the counter, and modern décor shared a consistency absent under the golden arches. Earlier this year, in addition to cutting out genetically modified ingredients from its food, Chipotle stopped serving its popular carnitas at several locations after discovering that one of its pork suppliers was falling short of agreed animal welfare standards.

It believes this approach gives it higher quality ingredients that make for tastier burritos. And its growing legion of fans buys into it, literally. Chipotle is outcompeting fast food rivals by seamlessly combining its social mission, commercial ambitions, and a clear benefit to customers.

Increasingly, shoppers flock to brands with an authentic mission that gives rise to a better product. And far from harboring an anti-consumerist suspicion of corporate motives, there’s growing evidence of demand for products that don’t just do good, but that are commercially successful because they don’t require consumers to sacrifice on things like style, functionality, and taste.

Method takes this approach to household goods. The company’s non-toxic, biodegradable detergents and surface cleaners come in recycled and recyclable packaging. The cleaners are easier on users’ health than harsh chemicals, they arguably smell and look better (the sleek, minimalist bottles are often shown off on countertops rather than squirreled under sinks), and most importantly, they work.

By improving on factors that already drive purchase decisions in the cleaning category, Method has succeeded where bigger competitors have struggled. Clorox’s Green Works, with its packaging bedecked in sunflowers and its unavoidable connection to chlorine bleach in consumers’ minds doesn’t inspire the same kind of interest, trust, or loyalty. Method, by contrast, reflects its mission in everything it does and avoids the worthy, off-putting clichés so rife in “green marketing” these days.

Brands like Chipotle and Method prove that you can make money by making a difference, and that you needn’t be a hard-core campaigner, like Ben & Jerry’s or The Body Shop, to do it. You simply need to offer a better alternative that consumers are eager to buy because there’s something in it for them, as well as for others.