Chipotle Said, ‘No, We Want a Cow to Explode’: An Interview With the Men Behind ‘Farmed and Dangerous’

It all starts with an exploding cow and a viral video—not a flash of the Chipotle brand name.

Farmed and Dangerous” premiered on Hulu in February, marking Chipotle’s foray into longform entertainment. While the content may be branded, it plays like a mainstream TV show, thanks in part to Daniel Rosenberg and Tim Piper, co-founders of branded entertainment company Piro, and creators of the web series.

The four-part comedy series follows Chipotle’s model of putting the story first— as we’ve already seen with the restaurant chain’s award-winning short films and story-covered cups. As The New York Times points out, “Farmed and Dangerous” mentions Chipotle only once, and not in any way that strokes the brand’s ego.

So how does a brand pump money into a big piece of entertainment, promote a valuable message, and still remain tactfully behind the curtain?

We caught up with Rosenberg and Piper to find out.


What was Chipotle’s pitch to you, and how did you develop the idea with them?

Piper: They wanted to create something in the entertainment world that was more long-format than what they’d been doing with animated film. They specifically requested that we give comedy a try, even if it proved difficult, because they didn’t want to do a food documentary like Food Inc. That’s been done before and they just wanted to create something that was a little more mainstream.

They gave us their spiel on food with integrity and everything they stood for and just asked us to create a story that would embed those values. After a month, we came up with the idea in the boardroom, and they latched onto this concept of satirizing the people that make their lives difficult sometimes.

How did Chipotle decide how much branding would or wouldn’t go into the actual series?

Piper: They specifically asked for there to be very little branding. They wanted it really to be a story first and entertainment first, provided we got the messaging in there and the subject matter that they wanted to talk about. They cared more about that than actual branding.

Rosenberg: That’s what we’re calling “values integration.”

With backgrounds in entertainment and advertising, how did you ended up gravitating towards branded content?

Rosenberg: In 2008, when the whole world went upside down and everyone was trying to figure out what the business model was, I realized that the money was really drying up from the traditional Hollywood film sources. For me, I was like, “Alright, where is the money coming from next?”

We created Piro to basically have two guys from the two different fields that make up the word “branded entertainment,” and to have them actually approach it strategically from the very beginning as opposed to what we’re seeing now.

Do you approach the process of creating a story differently when it’s branded entertainment, as opposed to just purely from your own minds?

Piper: We focus on the brief and the strategy from a marketing perspective, but when it comes to actually connecting the idea and the entertainment itself, we tend to go the traditional route by accessing writers that Daniel’s had long relationships with and contacting agents for scripts that are relevant to the genre that we’re looking at for the brand. For “Farmed and Dangerous” we put a writers’ room together. There was a film writer, a television writer, Daniel, and myself. The client—Chipotle lead brand voice, William Espey—also joined the writers’ room.

With advertising you tend to get two guys—a writer and an art director—sitting down, throwing around ideas. They’re very much used to coming up with concepts. Whereas the writers from the Hollywood side of things are used to coming up with stories, and, surprisingly, they are very, very different things. At least, that’s what I’ve come to learn.

Are brands, in this sense, taking on the role of studios? There are bound to be some restrictions in both cases.

Rosenberg: We haven’t experienced it yet, where the brand was very specific in their parameters. But sometimes, it helps the creative process when they are. Having been the recipient of studio notes over the years, there’s a cliché of, “Oh, studio notes. You know, they’re a writer’s worst nightmare.” Sometimes studio notes are great. I can tell you with Chipotle, their notes were invariably really great notes and they made it better. Sometimes they actually pushed us harder to take more risks. We were at first very conservative with the writing, and their response was, “No, we want a cow to explode.”

Why do you think the series was so successful?

Rosenberg: Storytelling is really a unique and new skill set that advertisers and brands need to master. That is the secret in today’s media landscape of maximizing earned media. It’s really a great story, and word of mouth and social sharing of content is only going to happen if the creative is at the level of mainstream entertainment.

Piper: The research that came back said that 86 percent of people that started watching watched the whole show, which is huge for any web video, even if you pay to click. But what was really remarkable is that 62 percent of those people actually shared part of the content—either emailed it, or posted something on Facebook about it, or tweeted it. You can’t pay people to click on Hulu and watch the show. You just can’t. Yet hundreds of thousands of people tuned in and watched it and then shared it.

By doing a story at Chipotle, we’re actually able to include multiple points. Chipotle might have had about 30 things that they really wanted to communicate about agriculture. Those 30 things are all in the content. Whereas in an ad, you can really only focus on one thing if that’s going to be successful and pop through.

At Contently, we’re all about encouraging journalists to take opportunities to write for brands. Do you think the same applies to screenwriters and filmmakers now?

Piper: Yes, I think that’s it. I think the filmmakers and writers that I’ve spoken to are more than willing to dabble in the branded entertainment space. I think they really like the idea of actually getting something made for once because in their world, it’s a miracle if something ever gets made and sees the light of day. In this world, there’s a really good chance at it.

At the end of the day, all the TV shows like “Modern Family” could’ve been born from a creative strategy or from a brand strategy.

All those shows are created to attract brands and be appealing to wide audiences. There’s certainly an art and a craft to storytelling, but at the moment, the TV business model is all about storytelling for the purpose of brands being able to interrupt it. The art and the craft doesn’t have to be hurt by the structure of a brand being the one behind entertainment in the first place.

Rosenberg: There was a really big TV writer who told me that Piro was the devil’s work five years ago: “If brands are going to be developing TV then they’re going to be the end of creativity as we know it.” All I’m going to say is he’s now doing a show for us.

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