Research we published last week following Chipotle’s decision to ban GMO ingredients from its menu sparked a lot more feedback than we expected. It’s evident that many of our food industry clients watch Chipotle very closely and even a few of our non-QSR/fast casual clients look at them for inspiration. We heard a lot of theories as to why Chipotle made that decision, the most cogent of which argued that it would allow Chipotle to increase its prices and, therefore, accelerate same-store sales. Makes a lot of sense.

But we have a different theory…

There are few companies whose growth more coincided with the prevailing consumer trends of the day — things like the proliferation of social media, health consciousness, and sustainability – than Chipotle’s. Not only are consumers more educated about food; they have more avenues at their disposal to read and share content about it. Good news and bad news can spread quickly among large groups of people who have common interests and a proclivity for social media evangelism. Who fits that bill better than today’s foodie? And what brand has hitched its wagon more to the foodie culture than Chipotle?

As much as Chipotle has remained a darling in the business world and a wave-maker in the restaurant industry, their positioning has its risks. Any entity that lives by the sword of highly-publicized activism can also fall victim to it. This is evident among the 29,346 US adults we have surveyed about Chipotle favorability in recent years.

CivicScience has been tracking consumer attitudes toward Chipotle every day since January 2013. Take a look at the trend line over the past 2+ years:   (click to enlarge)

Chipotle favorability trendline 2013-April 2015

In general, we can see a couple clear trends here. Awareness of the Chipotle brand has increased steadily, evidenced by the consistent decline (the blue line) in the number of people who say they’ve never heard of the brand – especially since early 2014. The red line (people with no strong opinion of the brand) has also climbed steadily, largely due to new people who have heard of the brand but may have never eaten there. The important lines are the yellow (“like” the brand), green (“love” the brand), and purple (“don’t like” the brand).

Let’s start with the yellow line. On balance, the percentage of people who say they “like” the brand has remained remarkably consistent over the past 2 ½ years, with one slight dip in the first quarter of 2014 (see the point of numbered marker 2).

The green line, people who “love” Chipotle has been a little more volatile. We see steady decline in Chipotle lovers from Q4 2013 through Q1 2014 (markers 1 & 2), but it recovered a bit in Q2 2014 (marker 3). It declined again through Q3 and Q4 2014 (markers 4 & 5), before it perked back up again in Q1 2015 (marker 6) – and now may be back on a decline again.

Finally, look at the purple line – people who say they “don’t like” Chipotle. This number was relatively steady until Q3 2014 (marker 4), where we see a dramatic jump in Chipotle detractors. It stayed there for just a few months until it jumped steeply again starting in Q2 of this year (marker 6).

So what caused all of these shifts? It’s hard to know for sure but there may be some clues. Let’s start with marker 1, which shows the first drop among Chipotle lovers on our chart. A customized Google search for news related to Chipotle in Q3 of 2013 yields a number of negative results related to the company’s consideration of using antibiotic-treated meats and news about shortage of “responsibly-raised” meat. Certainly, the hardcore foodies who caught wind of this news and shared it with their cohorts on social media may have been disillusioned.

But this kind of ‘foodie news’ only affected a small group of Chipotle lovers and faded fairly quickly. What about the drop we see at marker 2, which shows a noticeable decline both among Chipotle lovers and ‘likers?’ If news about Chipotle in Q4 2013 was a leading indicator (and we think it was), another custom Google search may provide the answer. Among the first search results we found was an article entitled “Bad News Chipotle Devotees: Prices are Going Up.” A company announcement about impending price increases seemed to dominate the Chipotle news cycle – the kind of news that could affect brand zealots and casual diners alike.

Fast-forward through the third quarter of 2014, where we see a major jump in Chipotle detractors. Do you remember what happened in the months leading up to Q3 2014? Google it. Dominating the Chipotle news was the company’s May 2014 decision to prohibit customers from bringing guns into its stores. For the first time, we see Chipotle news that extended broadly into mainstream media. Subsequently, we see a massive drop in the number of people who were unfamiliar with the brand – and a concurrent leap in people who don’t like it. Why? We can guess. Older, middle-American, Second Amendment-loving consumers, who knew little about the Chipotle brand were now hearing about it on CBS, Fox News, and the USA Today. They weren’t fans of what they heard.

Let’s move on to marker 5 at Q1 of this year, where Chipotle sees its first positive movement in a year. Could this have been a result of Chipotle’s much-publicized decision in early January 2015 to suspend the sale of pork from its menu due to supplier humane farming compliance issues? Industry analysts believe that the move was made in the interest of “protecting [Chipotle’s] image as a socially responsible company.” It appears that the foodies responded favorably.

And finally, what’s to blame for the drop in Chipotle lovers and the climb in Chipotle detractors we are seeing so far in Q2 of this year (marker 6)? Nobody would call you crazy if you attributed it to the extended news coverage in February about the calorie-count in Chipotle’s food. Epiphanies about 300-calorie tortillas reached the foodie community for sure, while outlets like Fox News seemed to revel in the, um, irony. The loyalty of Chipotle lovers was tested. Detractors piled up.

Let’s take another look at that trendline, with the news announcements highlighted: (click to enlarge)

Chipotle favorability trendline compared to news (2013 - April 2015)

That brings us to Chipotle’s late-April PR push about GMOs. Why did they do it and why now? Here’s one plausible theory: Chipotle is obviously run by some super-smart people. Let’s assume they’ve had a view into their brand sentiment metrics over the past several years, similar (and probably better) than the metrics we have tracked. Surely, they know how attitudes toward the company have been jolted by foodie and mainstream news. It’s conceivable then, that Chipotle’s GMO ploy was a defensive move – aimed at staving off the negative sentiment that seemed to be growing early this year, particularly among the foodie crowd.

Will it work? We’ll see. It could even backfire, as some in the foodie community are attacking Chipotle over the science (or even alleged hypocrisy) behind their decision. Time will tell. Check back with us in a few months.