Last month, Contently’s VP of Content, Sam Slaughter, wrote about how “[b]rands becoming publishers is so, like, last year.” Brands can no longer stand out by just publishing editorial content; with the content arms race escalating, brands need to tell incredible stories if they want to cut through the noise. We’ve been on the lookout for brands telling incredible stories ever since.
The best stories stay with their audience, and Chipotle’s new computer-animated short film, The Scarecrow, is no exception. This HuffPo headline sums it up: “Chipotle ‘Scarecrow’ Ad Will Make You Feel All the Feelings.”
The stunning short film, animated by MOONBOT Studios, finds our protagonist, The Scarecrow, in a dystopian urban wasteland where food production is controlled by “Crow Foods”—an evil conglomerate that makes 100% beef-ish meat. The score–Fiona Apple covering “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory–creates a haunting and somber ambience as The Scarecrow witnesses imprisoned cows being injected with needles in automatic milking contraptions.
When The Scarecrow returns home, he finds a chili growing and soon rediscovers the joys of real, fresh food. The world comes alive. It’s an uplifting transformation, and you don’t get even a hint of Chipotle branding until the final shot, when the Scarecrow serves a pair of fresh tacos.
It’s a great piece of branded content not only for its emotional resonance but also for how it integrates with the rest of Chipotle’s marketing efforts. The film is actually promoting a new, free iOS game called The Scarecrow, in which players can fight against unethical food practices. As with the film, the graphics look incredible.
It also builds off Chipotle’s last hit video, Back to the Start, which shows grassland turning into a factory farm and back again, and has been viewed over 7.7 million times. In just two weeks, The Scarecrow has attracted almost as many views—more than 6.35 million.
Both films reinforce the distinction Chipotle wants to make: that “Chipotle is a company that has been built in a very different way,” said Chipotle’s Communications Director Chris Arnold. “Most fast food companies use cheap, heavily-processed ingredients. We do not. We use great ingredients from more sustainable sources. Most cook all or most of their food offsite using very industrial methods, and reheat food in the restaurants. We do not. We cook food in our restaurants using classic cooking methods.”
The brilliance of “The Scarecrow” isn’t just that it communicates that distinction, it’s that it makes you care about the issue, and the fact that Chipotle will soon become the first American restaurant chain to ban genetically modified foods. It’s tough to crave fast-food chicken nuggets after watching the film.
“With a film like this, our aim is more to educate people about issues in food – issues many don’t know exist – and spark conversation about those issues,” said Arnold. “It’s not necessarily about selling burritos, but selling ideas.”
The restaurant chain doesn’t advertise on television, choosing instead to invest in great branded content like “The Scarecrow.” In the process, they’re busting the myth that great brand storytelling can’t replace traditional commercials and deliver a comparable, or even greater, impact.
“We think that complex issues–such as those with which we are dealing–are made much more accessible to people when they are presented in the context of entertainment,” said Arnold. “Films like ‘The Scarecrow’ or ‘Back to the Start’ are great examples of this. They take difficult issues and present them as entertainment, and you can reach a universe of people who might not otherwise be paying attention to the issues.”
“It’s not necessarily about selling burritos, but selling ideas.”
For Chipotle, this is just the beginning. Arnold revealed that they’ll soon up the ante with “a series of four, TV show-length Big-Food-busting dark comedies, Farmed and Dangerous, that Chipotle will post online sometime in 2014.”
Before you know it, Chipotle – a food brand – could wind up owning the conversation around food ethics and sustainability. Now that’s the power of great storytelling.