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Lessons learned from Chipotle’s Halloween metaverse scare

Imagine you’ve laid all of the groundwork for your first foray into the metaverse. The designs are authentic, the messaging spot on and the promotion humming. Then, your platform of choice crashes at the moment of launch. That’s what happened to Chipotle. As part of The Drum’s Metaverse Deep Dive, we catch up with the restaurant chain to hear how it rallied to make its Halloween ’Boorito’ promotion an early metaverse case study of success.

Chipotle Mexican Grill has never been afraid to experiment in the digital realm. Its courage has rewarded the chain well as it tripled its digital sales during lockdown. By most accounts, that was a pretty impressive feat for a chain that built its reputation by making its product live and before your eyes.

Ever willing to push the boundaries for the brand, Chipotle was the first restaurant chain to create a virtual storefront on the popular Roblox platform. The idea was simple, bring its annual ’Boorito’ Halloween event to the metaverse.

For 21 years, the chain has offered free burritos to folks who showed up to its locations in costume. However, Covid put a crimp in that tradition. So, last Halloween, Chipotle decided to give away $1m in free burritos to the first 30,000 people visited its in-game restaurant.

The program was slated to run October 28-31. And then Roblox experienced an “internal system issue” because of a meddlesome bug. The end result was a three-day outage that began, you guessed it, October 28.

Tin foil hats, napkin pants and Elton the Skeleton
Before we get to the crisis moment and the ultimate success story, let’s take a look at the groundwork that allowed the ’Boorito’ promotion to be a treat versus what had all the makings of a trick.

Chipotle had already skillfully transferred its ’Boorito’ tradition to digital in 2020. For the 20th anniversary of the popular promotion, it scattered 500,000 buy-one-get-one-free burrito offers across TikTok, Twitter and Instagram. Consumers applauded. Sales soared.

In 2021, it took note of the fact that Chipotle fans among the 43 million active daily Roblox users were incorporating the brand into their avatars. Others even created their own games that featured Chipotle.

So it made the decision to shift ’Boorito’ into the metaverse. To do so, it looked to recreate an exact replica of walking into its Mexican grills, whether it’s the menu, chairs or art on the walls. Players were greeted by the familiar face of Elton the Skeleton, who has starred in prior ’Boorito’ campaigns. Then they were then invited to don an avatar costume, choosing from a Burrito Mummy, Chip Bag Ghost, Guacenstein and Spicy Devil.

The first 30,000 people to get to the cashier received a free entrée code. Afterwards players were invited to wander the corn maze where they could receive virtual goods like foil bucket hats and napkin shorts.

“We felt like it was the right moment,” says Tressie Lieberman, vice-president of digital and off-premise at Chipotle. ”We didn’t just show up for the sake of showing up.”

Chipotle also made certain to tap people who actually understood the Roblox environment. It’s important that you “don’t pretend you know it all,” says Lieberman. “Bring in experts who can guide you, do it in a way that’s unique to your brand and feed the relationship there.” So it worked with the gaming studio Melon and its agency D1A to craft the experience.

Now the stage was set.

Crisis management in the metaverse
Soon the game was live. Buzz was building and almost immediately Roblox servers crashed. Some players quickly blamed Chipotle for overwhelming the digital ecosystem with its burrito giveaway. Roblox issued a statement that the outage was not related to “specific experiences or partnerships on the platform.”

Chipotle’s social listening team was watching and reacting. “I was walking around the Statue of Liberty with my son taking calls,” says Lieberman. “As it started to go offline, we started coming up with different scenarios.

The first thing it did was update fans that all offers and merchandise would be available once Roblox was back online. There were constant updates and assurances the promotional period would be extended. “Part of the muscle to this organization is adapting and responding in real-time – being able to pivot when unexpected things happen because they often do. You have to always plan for the worst case scenario. Culture moves fast. Technology is always changing. You just have to be set up as an organization to anticipate and respond.”

Three days later, Roblox was back online. Immediately Chipotle ensured that all of the free entrée codes were distributed. “When it opened up again, we had a huge surge in players. Maybe there was even more demand because people were talking about the game and wanted to play it.”

In fact, the game has had 5 million unique users to date and this number continues to grow as Chipotle made the decision to keep it going. “People are still playing it every day. It’s not going to change any time soon. A typical marketer would say: ’Hey, Halloween is over, take that game down.’ But people are loving it. They’re still playing it so we’re not going to take that away.”

It was all quite a first stab at the metaverse for Chipotle. But it was a successful one that provided myriad learnings for the marketing team. Now, brand fans can expect to see more. “We are going to optimize our strategy in the metaverse in general and think about how we’re going to continue to show up in Roblox. The metaverse in particular provides a lot of opportunities. It’s a new frontier to shake things up and take risks and push in new ways we haven’t seen before.”

Scary bugs be damned.