Chipotle Product Managers Play Games With Ethics – Is This Ok To Do?

Is what the Chipotle Product Managers Doing Ethical?
Is what the Chipotle Product Managers Doing Ethical?
Image Credit: K. Todd Storch

So product manager, I’ve got an interesting ethical issue for you. Are you ready? If sales of your product were sagging and your boss came to you and told you that it was your job to boost sales, how far would you go to make this happen? Would you change your product development definition? Would you be willing to lie to your customers to get them to buy more of your product? What if it was just a little lie – maybe not even a lie, just a mistruth? What if your customers wanted to be lied to? Over at the Chipotle food chain, their product managers faced this very dilemma.

What The Chipotle Product Managers Claimed About Their Product

Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s take a look at what is going on over at Chipotle. As with every restaurant chain, Chipotle is faced with a constant problem: people tend to forget about them when it’s time to make a decision about where to go tonight to buy dinner. When you consider how many billions, yes I do mean billions, of dollars all of those other restaurant chains spend on trying to get people to think of them first when it comes time to deciding where they’ll be going, the Chipotle product managers are under the gun to remain relevant. . Get this one right and they’ll have something to add to their product manager resume

What the Chipotle product managers decided to do was make a public announcement. What they told the world was that Chipotle was going to stop using any Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) to make their food. Wow. Well there you go. What does any of this mean? That’s where things tend to get a bit tricky, because there are a whole bunch of things that the Chipotle product managers can’t say right now.

What they did say was that “They say that these (GMO) ingredients are safe, but I think that we all know that we’d rather have food that doesn’t contain them.” This is exactly what the Chipotle product managers have been doing for a long time. Every so often just to keep the Chipotle name in the news, they’ll come up with an announcement about organic ingredients or the humane treatment of animals to get some media attention. The goal is to keep the brand in the public’s mind and this latest announcement is no different.

How They Got Away With It

As you may have already detected from my tone, the Chipotle product managers are pretty much putting one over all of us. It turns out that there is nothing wrong with GMO food. After the announcement was made, two food scientists wrote in the LA Times that “More than two decades of research indicate that are not only safe for humans and the environment, but also contribute to global sustainability and poverty alleviation.”

What the product managers at Chipotle are doing is called “puffery”. Puffery is defined as being an exaggeration or overstatement expressed in broad vague language. Such sales talk is considered to be offered and understood as an expression of the seller’s opinion only, which is to be discounted by the buyer. In order words, Chipotle can say anything that they want, as long as everyone knows that they are basically making it up. This is clearly what is happening right now.

Where things get interesting is when we take a look at what Chipotle’s customers want the company to tell them. It turns out that Chipotle customers want to be fooled. They want to feel a sense of entitlement and moral vanity. The problem for Chipotle will come from their competition. If they take the time to educate Chipotle’s customers and let them know that what Chipotle is doing does nothing for them, then a powerful marketing tool will have been taken out of the hands of the Chipotle product managers.

What All Of This Means For You

Being a product manager means that we need to make ethical decisions every day. What does our product manager job description tell us to do — should we tell our customers the truth, or should we bend it just a little bit to make our product appear to be a little bit better? Over at Chipotle the product managers have just announced to the world that their restaurant will no longer be using GMO ingredients in the preparation of their food. Does this really mean anything?

The Chipotle product managers are preying on their customer’s confusions in regards to GMO foods. Although a great deal of study has gone into these foods and their non-impact on humans, as with all changes you can always find someone online who will say that they are bad for you. It turns out that what the Chipotle product managers are engaged in is called puffery and although it is legal, it is also an admission that they are not telling their customers the truth.

One of my biggest problems with what the product managers at Chipotle are doing is that one day their customers will figure out that all of these grand claims of “better food” are really just made up. I would be very concerned how my customers would react to my product when this happened. Chipotle customers have a lot of other options, when they see through the puffery what food choices will they make?

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: Do you think that the Chipotle product managers could drop GMOs while saying that there was nothing wrong with them?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

If you are anything like I am, when you get a package sent to you in the mail you are excited to receive it. When the package arrives, the first thing that you do is to tear it open and get to the item that has been sent to you. We generally don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how this item was packaged – how did it make it to us without breaking? More often than not it’s been packed in bubble wrap. You know, the plastic sheets of bubbles that we all used to take time to pop when we were kids. Times are changing and bubble wrap is going away. What are those bubble wrap product managers thinking?