The subject of inhumane farming is not an easy one to broach. Some people just don’t want to know about it because, well, it’s not pleasant to hear about animals being forced to live in horrific conditions and being pumped up with chemicals. But fast food chain Chipotle, which only does business with farmers dedicated to humane practices, found a way into people’s hearts and minds through Back to the Start.
Created in conjunction with the CAA Marketing arm of Creative Artists Agency and director Johnny Kelly, the animated short tells the story of a farmer who has allowed his humane family farm to be transformed into one of those horrific factory-style farms but ultimately realizes the error of his ways and moves back toward more sustainable farming methods. It’s an emotional journey, and the captivating visuals—all of the action is captured in one long pan that runs throughout the film—are supported by Willie Nelson’s haunting rendition of Coldplay’s “The Scientist.” Co.Create spoke with Jesse Coulter, co-chief creative officer of CAA Marketing, to explore the making of this affecting piece of branded content.
CO.CREATE: What was the brief?
JESSE COULTER: Prior to meeting for the first time with Chipotle Founder and Co-CEO Steve Ells and CMO Mark Crumpacker, we had a lot of misconceptions about the company and were unaware of their Food With Integrity philosophy and corporate mission to change food culture. But we immediately realized they were going to change the world and we wanted to be a part of that. It only took one meeting for us to go from skeptics to believers. That’s what excited us. If people knew Chipotle’s story, they, too, would be believers.
Like Mark and Steve, we believed in the brand’s potential and wanted to help make their marketing as innovative and inspirational as their business. We knew we needed to create emotional work that would connect with people. We wanted people to feel like we did the first time we met Chipotle.
So for our first assignment, we were tasked to find new ways to tell Chipotle’s Food With Integrity story. We presented a broad scope of ideas including with the short film Back to the Start. We thought an anthemic short would be a good way to kick off the Cultivate a Better World platform.
How did you get to the bigger idea here? What was the breakthrough?
The first issue Chipotle wanted to address was industrial farming. As we researched this issue, we learned these farms are factories and nothing like the farms depicted in children’s books. Chipotle shared many stories of family farmers who have turned their farms into factory farms and have subsequently grown to regret it. From there, it was iteration after iteration, building on the concept throughout the execution.
What made this project? What were some of the key choices that made this project really work and made it successful from an awards standpoint and a general audience standpoint?
First, the sustainable message. It said something. It was provocative because it took a stab at Big Agriculture. Chipotle is a bold company, who has the courage to really stand up for what they believe in.
Second, execution. Johnny Kelly’s amazing vision and crafting of the film, and Willie Nelson and Coldplay’s unexpected collaboration really drew people into the human story of the farmer character.
Third, extending the message. At the end of the film, a title card appears letting people know that they can download the song on iTunes, and the proceeds benefit the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation, which is dedicated to creating a sustainable, healthy, and equitable food future. People responded and the song reached number one on the iTunes Country chart.
Fourth, distribution. Running the full-length short in cinemas and during the Grammy Awards helped reach wider audiences and elevate the film and brand.
Why do you think this particular construct worked so well?
We call it "pop culture math." During development and execution, we always ask ourselves, ‘What’s the equation of pop culture elements that will resonate with a large audience? Why would people like this? Why should people care?’
And more than anything, we think the timing was right. For the first time in generations, people are thinking about where their food comes from.
What has this work done for the brand?
While the film has received an overwhelming response, created awareness of the brand’s values, and changed perceptions for many, it is important to note that one short film simply cannot change their business or the world. The Cultivate a Better World platform is a brave long-term play, and fortunately, we are off to a great start. For years, Chipotle encouraged other companies to stop inhumane farming practices with little result. But the day after Back to the Start aired during the Grammy Awards, McDonald’s announced it would cease all pig confinement operations. We feel that is a real testament to the power of this short film.