In this episode of UNAIDED, Tressie Lieberman, VP of Digital Marketing for Chipotle, dives into driving customer engagement and growth through digital transformation. Tapping insights from different generations has allowed Chipotle to meet the needs of their customers. Tressie mentions that they will bring TikTok content creators and influencers into the test kitchen where tasting happens and see their reaction. There’s no way you can go to the Cultivate Centers and not be happy. Tune in to this episode today with Tressie Lieberman.
In this episode, we welcome Tressie Lieberman to the show. She is the Vice President of Digital Marketing and Off-Premise for Chipotle. She is responsible for driving customer engagement and the growth of digital orders and ordering occasions. Let’s get into it.
Tressie, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here.
We’re so excited to have you. I’m particularly excited to have a fellow Longhorn join us on the show. Have you been back to Austin?
I lived there for two years. I got involved in the McCombs School of Business and have been doing guest lecturing. I got a chance to go out, attend a game and meet with students in person. I love it. Austin makes me happy.
It’s different now. It’s evolved.
In living there for two years, I thought it would be like college and it’s not. It’s evolved. It’s very mature. We’re a metropolitan city but it still has the Austin vibe.
It’s controversial. You joined a company where the color red is similar to a Sooners red or an A&M red.
Not only that but I have two Sooners on my team. Texas OU around here is pretty fun. They were so talented that I hired them despite my angst against the Sooners.
You graduated from McCombs with a degree in Marketing.
I was an Advertising major and started my career in advertising. I worked at two different agencies and then felt that interest to deeply understand the business to help inform decisions and was fortunate to move to the client side. I got my start at Pizza Hut.
How did you know in high school even that you wanted to go into advertising?
At a young age, I was fascinated by the creative side of advertising. I would always be writing jingles and becoming obsessed with different commercials. When I went to college, I wanted to be a writer and get into the creative program at UT. Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was I did not get into the creative program. I then chose to take more of the business side and study Account Management and Media where I would still be close to the creative but in a different role. I’m happy about that because it led me to where I am.
One of my wife’s least favorite things about me is I create a jingle for almost every single company. I’ve got a Chipotle jingle that I’ve got to run past you at some point.
Six years old and I was saying, “Here’s the slogan I’m going to use if he runs for student council.” My husband said, “Do you know how messed up that is that you’re already thinking about his messaging and positioning? If he runs for student council, he’s six.” I’m like, “I know. It’s so much fun.” I love to think about how you put yourself out in the world, whether it’s your personal brand or an actual brand but it’s something that interests me. A big part of it is I’m curious about people and culture and how you tap into those unique insights. It motivates someone. I genuinely enjoy it.
You’ve had so much success and an incredible career thus far, specifically in food restaurants. Would you consider Snap Kitchen as a CPG category?
They had retail, as well as direct consumer, digital and wholesale. It was a very broad category of food. I spent my career in the business of helping people fuel their bodies with delicious food.
What is it about the fueling of the body that spoke to you originally?
Food is such a passion point. When you look at culture, it’s driven by fashion, sports, music and food. It’s a part of your daily life. To see how it changes people’s lives, whether it’s adding convenience or giving people healthy ingredients and food, they can feel good about eating. It’s part of how you go about your day and you get to see people experience it and talk about it. I love talking to someone and saying, “I work for Chipotle.” The reaction is always, “I love Chipotle.”
They tell me their specific order and the stories of how it’s been a part of their lives and what it meant to them in college or as a new parent. It’s so much storytelling and passion in the field. It’s also a very competitive field. All the restaurants are trying to come up with great new ideas and are very innovative. It creates this underdog challenger mindset where you’re constantly trying to raise the bar and do the unexpected.
Going off of that, what has been so incredible about Chipotle? I feel like it’s hard to go on TikTok without seeing something related in a fun way to Chipotle. You’re active in Roblox. The evolution of Chipotle over the last few years has been amazing. I was listening to the How I Built This episode with Steve Ells. It is a great episode. He’s such an innovator. I believe he stepped down as CEO in 2018 and was no longer the chairman of the board as of 2020, which aligns nicely with your tenure at Chipotle. How has Chipotle continued to innovate? What’s it like when the founder of a company ultimately steps down and leaves? How have you continued to have much success since then?
Chipotle has been on the road to digital transformation and I’m grateful to be a part of that. When I joined, we had an incredible app, a great website and ease of ordering existed. We have these digital make lines in our restaurants where if you place a digital order, it’s made in a separate area of the restaurant. You can catch your order quickly. You get custom-made for you in that digital experience. We hadn’t talked about it. We hadn’t built mass awareness of those channels.
Steve felt there was a future in this transformation of the brand of not just being a restaurant company or in a restaurant company. Being able to come in and show people that there is an easy way to get real food is a great part of the journey, whether it’s launching delivery, expanding to different marketplace platforms, launching our rewards program to engage our community and creating this more personalized relationship with all of our ongoing emails, push and SMS. It’s been becoming relevant with Gen Z.
We were doing a lot of great marketing for Millennials but hadn’t tapped into that unique Gen Z mindset. Being the first restaurant band on TikTok, be real and try new things like going onto Roblox where we’ve had 20 million gameplays and people spending 14 minutes with the brand, all these things work together to position us differently and be very relevant, accessible brand.
That’s a small piece of all the things that Chipotle has done over the last many years. It’s been a cool journey and we’ve been able to see the results from that, especially as we navigated through the pandemic. There was a massive shift in customer behavior. We were ready for that shift and had all systems in place to be able to be there for our customers and help remove some of the friction in that process.
It’s been a while journey. With Steve transitioning off, nothing changed in terms of the spirit of what he brought to Chipotle, which was all about real ingredients and a better way of doing things, whether it was how you treat your employees or sourcing sustainability. That’s such a core part of who we are as a brand. In everything we do, we’re always making sure that we go back to our original principles and values and bring those to life in new ways that are connecting to customers.
You brought up Gen Z. I saw the Keithadilla and Fajita Quesadilla Hack hit the menu. What is Keithadilla?
It’s been a fun project. We have been working on bringing the TikTok-led menu idea to life. In December 2022, there was this awesome creator named Alexis Frost who always asked her community what she should order at a restaurant. One of our employees gave her a recommendation for getting a Quesadilla with Fajita veggies included. Keith Lee, who’s another huge TikTok creator, saw that.
He went and tried. He talked about it and rated the product 10 of 10. The only touch was that you can’t get this menu item at Chipotle in the restaurant, which is where they were getting it. They were getting an off-menu item that wasn’t available nationwide because Quesadillas is a digital exclusive. We worked quickly to get Quesadillas in our app, have Fajita veggies, which is what they were doing in their hack and be able to get honey vinaigrette on the side, which we didn’t offer with the Quesadilla in the app.
You can order Keithadilla, which is Keith Lee’s original order. You can get Alexis Frost’s original Quesadilla Hack. All of our Quesadillas offer Fajita veggies included and a side of honey vinaigrette, which is a big part of the hack. It’s something we believe in, which is listening to our customers and having the capability to move fast to respond to culture and be able to give people what they want. That’s part of how we operate. Chipotle is a very innovative brand that is customer obsessed. It’s fun to be a part of those types of projects.
They take the whole organization. On TikTok, you could say, “That’s so easy. Fajita veggies and the Quesadilla, why is that hard?” You’ve got to work with the product team to make sure that you can order this and think through that whole design flow. We are working with operations to do all the proper training on the product to make sure that we can have enough supply of the honey vinegar wrap, which we didn’t offer before. You’ve got enough supply of fajita veggies. The whole organization is coming together on a project like that. We have that superpower where we can move fast and make things happen.
It seems so obvious. Your loyal customers are talking on social media about something that they want and love. You have all been successful at capitalizing on that and creating new menu items that are for the people or your consumers. With that said, it doesn’t seem like every quick-service restaurant group does embrace what’s happening on social media. I’m curious. Behind the scenes, what is the SWOT analysis? What would be the reason to not embrace what people are saying on social media and innovate based on what you’re hearing?
There’s a lot of conversation happening on social media. There’s a different TikTok menu hack about Chipotle every single day. I’m not even exaggerating when I say that. People are creative. There’s so much innovation happening in the community of TikTok in particular that is changing the way that businesses can operate because you are getting a lot of feedback, always on feedback.
People are creative. So much innovation happens in the TikTok community that changes the businesses can operate because you get a lot of feedback.
For us, it’s been important to always be listening. That’s important for every brand. You have to have many different sources of information. You can listen in traditional focus groups or get your survey feedback in the restaurant but you also have to have your ear to the ground with these comments that are happening across social media. You have to know what’s important to your brand, what your values are and what your unique trades are.
With that, what’s going to be right for not only the customer but for our team members because our experience for our customer is going to match how it feels for a team member. A lot of hacks are difficult for us to execute. However, with this one, by putting the Quesadilla Hack in the app, we made it easier for our team members. We could provide the proper training and move this to digital where it’s easier to improve the throughput. We call it The Orders Being Able To Move Through The Line. It was a win-win for the customer and the team member. We’re always evaluating ideas but a lot of innovation comes from saying no. We lean towards getting to a yes when we believe that it’s going to be a win across the organization.
What you all have done with the rewards program has been phenomenal. You’ve grown the rewards program to 25 million consumers.
We’re about to have our 4th launch anniversary in 2023 and we have over 32 million members. This is wild. What’s exciting about it is being able to communicate with our community and help people feel known and valued by the brand. You’re not necessarily just relying on paid media. While that’s important, we also have this ability to drop into your inbox or your phone some valuable, entertaining and helpful content that is going to make you feel like we get you.
We’ve got our national messages that we put out but we also have these journeys that speak to you based on where you’re at in your relationship with Chipotle. Maybe you’re new and you put on the welcome journey or you are someone with the potential to get an extra purchase. We send you a special message to help you get to that purchase. We can reach you based on your behavior and help you feel valued through the rewards program where you can trade in your points for a variety of items on our menu.
You can donate your points to charity or use them for Chipotle goods, which is our merch line. You can get rewarded through a gamified experience with our badging. We launched the TikTok Quesadilla Hack badge. It’s a fun way to help your community feel seen and heard. It’s a big lever for us that didn’t exist many years ago. Think about the power of building something that’s going to provide value to your audience and community. It’s very powerful.
I assume that once someone becomes a member of that program, retention rates are higher and the customer lifetime value is higher. When you’re thinking about KPIs, investments and different media channels, are you thinking about your success metrics as acquiring people to the rewards program and then there’s a whole another set of rewards program KPIs or are you still thinking a lot about driving traffic into the store and average ticket value?
Every campaign and touchpoint can have a different KPI. It’s channel dependent. With rewards, it’s important to drive enrollment because you always want to get new people into the program. Once you’re in, there’s a whole different set of KPIs around engagement and understanding to your point, is it the lifetime value, your frequency, your incremental purchases or how your behavior compares to a non-rewards member?
Ultimately driving sales is something that we’re looking at. Other things we might be doing are with the sole purpose to drive culture. If we’re putting out a great piece of TikTok content, it’s not about driving sales. It is wanting to be that relevant cool brand to people who see us on TikTok and hoping that we create content that is so entertaining that it gets on the For You Page and it reaches a much broader audience for us. It’s wanting to be that brand as your friend. That’s a cool brand.
One KPI does not hit all for sure. There’s a place for brand and sales. At the end of the day, I hope everything we do drives sales because I hope it creates that connection where people want to keep coming to Chipotle. When they come to Chipotle and the more money they spend, the better we do for the world because we are buying the right ingredients from the right farmers and doing the right things for the planet and our people. At the end of the day, we can make a bigger impact when we drive those big sales and we’re always looking to do that.
I’m a millennial and I love Chipotle. I will always be a mainstay in my diet. You all have such loyalty from Millennials. There’s a big focus it seems on building that equivalent loyalty from Gen Z. Probably an obvious answer but why is acquiring the Gen Z audience so important? How much of your target addressable audience do you see Gen Z making up?
As a brand, we over-index some Millennials and Gen Z but you always need to be bringing along that next generation. We’re a brand that wants to stay young. We know that we have this incredible passion falling for high school students and college students. You don’t want to lose that by aging up to the next audience.
If you’re a parent, you’re at a very different life stage. If I’m only still speaking to you and I’m not bringing along the next generation, then you can’t get to the mass sales that you want. It’s important that you are always thinking about different groups and understanding what’s going to help motivate them. Being a part of a culture, you always want to be talking and engaging with the next generation too because a lot of times they’re setting the tone for what’s happening.
There’s a generational divide in a lot of ways and things that interest Gen Z might not interest Millennials. It’s not one size fits all we can do one broad campaign and it’s going to speak to everyone. What we do try to do is tap into those unique Chipotle insights, the things that we find are broad in a lot of ways against our audience, things that they love, whether it’s how they eat a bowl from left to right versus mixing it all or the love people have for the Chipotle fork or napkin hoarding. There are so many unique insights that are for all Chipotle fans that we try to tap into and that can be where things take off regardless of where you fit in some type of segmentation.
Do you mix it in? Do you go left to right? What’s your strategy?
I don’t mix it in and I don’t go left to right. I have my way of eating Chipotle because I’ve got to get every bite perfect based on the ingredients and try to get the flavor profile that I want. I’m very meticulous with Chipotle but the Quesadilla I’m getting for lunch, I’m going to eat like Keith Lee, which is he does three scoops of sour cream and mixes in the honey vinegarette for the perfect sauce, dips the steak Fajita Quesadilla in that sauce and enjoys every bite. It depends on what I’m eating. I eat Chipotle a lot.
At the Chipotle corporate office, is there a Chipotle? Where do you have to go to get Chipotle?
We have a few different offices. We call them RSCs. They’re the Restaurant Support Centers. We’re here in service to all of our team members. We have very fortunate to be about ten minutes away from our cultivate center, which is the place where our test kitchen is. Some walk into this replica of a Chipotle. It’s got the digital make line, menu panels and the whole thing. Our chefs are working there on always perfecting the core of Chipotle and experimenting with new menu items.
I do a lot of that but I also lead delivery. I get Chipotle delivered to the office all the time. We have Chipotle Monday so we bring in Chipotle catering for the whole office at all of our different support centers. It’s fun. You get everybody who works here together and gets to build your bowl. It’s something we’ve played into in social as well. Catering is cool because you are working behind the line and you can make your bowl exactly the way you want it. It’s fun to do and no one ever gets tired of Chipotle Catering.
Is there anything you could share about what’s going on in the test kitchen? Any insights or sneak peeks of what we could expect in the future?
We had the TikTok creators out there shooting their content and getting to try a lot of different new items as well. It’s a fun place to let some of our influencers and creators behind the fold see what we’re working on. We’ll bring in people from the field to be able to experience the menu, our agency partner. We use it for a lot of tastings with people to get that reaction. There’s no way you can go to the cultivate center and not be happy.
There’s no way you can go to the Cultivate Center and not be happy.
Many years ago, I was in DC at the train station and there was a concept restaurant that was part of the Chipotle family, ShopHouse. What happened at ShopHouse? Are there still innovations outside of Chipotle’s core food that is being thought of as potential iterations and growth paths in the future?
I can’t speak to what we’ve done in the past because I wasn’t here. We are working on a concept called Far Mesa. It is using the same standards as Chipotle and all of our fresh ingredients but a different cuisine. It’s going to be delivery-only to start. I can’t speak too much about it. I’d have to bring the Farm Mesa team but I am excited to be able to try it. It’s in Santa Monica.
One thing that you have always been incredible at is having a good pulse on consumer behavior and what is going to be happening in the future as evidenced by your engagement in TikTok and also Roblox as well. Sometimes I joined my nephew when he’s playing Roblox but what does Chipotle’s engagement on Roblox look like? What is the desired outcome of being involved with Roblox?
Our team has this mindset we call culture hunting. It is this expectation that we are constantly going to be curious, understanding what’s going on in the world and technology with our consumers. We love to do the unexpected and try new things. It’s in our DNA. It makes us a fun place to work. The team early on was looking at Roblox and exploring Web3 and all the possibilities there, experimenting and trying to understand where we could play in that space that would be relevant to our community. Where we’d be wanted? We don’t want to be the brand that’s showing up everywhere, enforcing ourselves in a bad ad. We are thinking about how we show up.
With Roblox in particular, we saw people talking about Chipotle in new ways. We hadn’t seen it before. Using Chipotle and their avatar, they were creating their Chipotle experiences. We thought, “This could be a place where it would make sense.” The platform has a lot of scales as well. I had about 50 million daily active users. We studied it deeply but waited for the right idea to jump in. That was important. We waited for the right insights and strategy to be able to show up. We always want to experiment but we want to do it in the right way. We found this opportunity with the burrito. Burrito is a longstanding promotion at Chipotle where you previously would go into the restaurant dressed in costume and get a discounted burrito.
As we were coming out of COVID and didn’t want to do another digital promotion but we weren’t ready to send tons of people at one moment into the restaurant, we’re like, “This could be a cool activation on Roblox because you could experience a burrito that you traditionally did in person in this immersive experiential way.” We built the whole promotion on Roblox. You could pick your costume, which was so cool based on a lot of things that had popped off on social.
You go into the restaurant, get your code for free at Chipotle and talk about the upcoming promotion as well where you could get discounted Chipotle digitally. You would leave the restaurant as you would in real life but because it’s virtual, you could walk into this whole corn maze battle against fake ingredients and get to the center of this maze and unlock exclusive merchandise.
The response to it was wild. There were billions of impressions and over ten minutes spent on the experience. People were excited about it. That gave us a signal to build out our next world, which has been a more permanent world, the Burrito Builder, which is based on an insight that people love to work in the metaverse. You come in and you are a team member. You dress as a team member and then the customers come in.
You make as many burritos as quickly as you can based on what the customer is telling you they want in their order. You earn burrito bucks and you can trade those in for merch. You can travel around the world and do deliveries. It’s a delightful way to experience a brand that you can’t do anywhere else. The things that we’re building there, they’re tapping into insights but they’re also ideas that another brand can’t do because they’re unique to Chipotle. It’s been fun to see that level of engagement and the results. It is something we’re going to continue to lean into.
With all the different initiatives that you have to go on, thinking about me, I’m not playing Roblox but I belong to different reward programs. My assumption is that your KPI is for me 31-year-old male or different than my nephew, an 8-year-old male but both are important. When you all are thinking about your marketing matrix and what success looks like, are there different KPIs based on age and demographic or is it solely by a channel that you’re thinking about different KPIs?
Ultimately, it’s about deepening the connection with the brand. In turn, the hope is that we drive conversion and a sale. We think about our audience and what’s going to make you most likely to do those things. That’s where the channels come in like, “I might be more likely to convert you through a smart targeted email and convert someone else through a deep experience on Roblox or a great piece of TikTok content.” It depends.
A lot of times, it’s a combination of a lot of different ideas. First, you might see our ad when you’re watching live sporting event and you are like, “That looks good. I love that Chipotle has those ingredients.” You then get the email the next day and that’s what pushes you to make that purchase. It’s a lot of things working together. When we started the journey of this digital transformation and the brand transformation, we talked about being more visible, relevant and loved. Everything we’ve done has laddered up to that in terms of driving that mass reaches based on the target and creating menu innovation or digital access or culture-driving ideas that are going to make you feel more connected.
Since you’re good at predicting the future, thinking about virtual reality in particular, what do you think is the future of VR and how brands can engage with consumers in virtual reality?
I’m not going to predict the future. What I will say is it’s important to be learning and experimenting. I have built my career on placing bets but it’s not one bet. It’s trying a lot of different things and seeing what connects with your consumer, what’s right for your brand and what your audience is going to care about. Anything that’s emerging I always lean into trying to understand it deeply, test and learn from it.
You then get signals that help inform you where you go from there. We are in this world where a lot is happening. Whether it’s VR, AI, AR or Web3, the opportunities are endless. You do have to be selective about the bets you’re going to place and think about the ones that are going to make the biggest impact for you.
We haven’t done anything quite yet in that world with VR but it’s always something that we’re deeply understanding and learning about. My advice for any brand is to understand where you think you can make that impact, lean in and go for it. When I think about whether it’s TikTok or Roblox, we could have sat on the sidelines on all of those, let everybody else lead the way and then jump in when we had a perfect idea. By getting in early, we learned. Learning is a huge advantage because then you can build from there.
You brought up AI. Have you asked ChatGPT to create a Chipotle commercial yet?
I have asked ChatGPT so many things about Chipotle and it’s fun. I was with my team and my dad sent me a text, “Have you heard of ChatGPT?” It’s taken off. It’s a new way of understanding your brand and what’s out there around your brand. It’s great. I’m excited about AI.
You’ve made a lot of bets and I bet you’ve had more wins than losses but can you think of or share with us a notable bet that you made that that didn’t pan out?
Much of what we do doesn’t go to our TikTok page and it will be right in your face about the things that have millions and thousands of views. You have to be brave to constantly be putting yourself out there and seeing what resonates. We do a postmortem on everything. We launch any campaign and we’re trying to understand what worked and what didn’t work. Some are home runs and some aren’t but you can’t let that hold you back to continue to experiment. I got no specific example but it is part of how we operate in general living in the world.
On the flip side, what’s the bet that you’ve made that has been a big success that you’re most proud of, either at Chipotle, Taco Bell, Snap Kitchen or anywhere in your career?
Many we’ve talked about but I’ll name a few. One is the rewards program. The ability to have this connection with 32 million people, to be able to understand their experience with Chipotle and continue to give them the right message, place and time are extremely powerful. It’s a business changer. Think about any business you want to leave a legacy and make an impact. We are doing that with rewards.
The others are experimenting with new platforms and being bold to go on to Roblox and be an early leader on TikTok. Those things pay out in spades because you are reaching a new generation and staying relevant. You used to launch a big campaign at any brand. Once a year, it’s like, “Here’s your big Super Bowl ad. You’re working towards these moments.” We live in a world of millions of moments. The attention span is short. You’ve got to show up every day to think about how you’re going to connect with people. A lot of these channels like Roblox and TikTok enable us to do that in an entertaining and deeply engaging way. It’s important.
Tressie, thank you not only for providing us all with delicious food at Chipotle but also for being a driving force that continues to innovate and shows us how to engage with consumers on different platforms. It is possible to build a rewards audience of tens of millions of people while also engaging with consumers on Roblox and TikTok and creating new menu items. This has been an interesting and insightful conversation. Before we let you go, we talked about the Quesadilla. What else is happening at Chipotle that we should be aware of?
I would ask everybody to join the rewards program. Download the app. It’s going to make your whole Chipotle experience awesome. Follow us on TikTok. Go to the Chipotle Burrito Builder on Roblox. It’s an awesome way to experience a brand differently and see how consumers are experiencing the brand but we’re always working on something. I love working here because the brand is amazing and what we do and stand for is unique but the team is incredible. I feel lucky to work with this group of people. If you’re following us on TikTok, you’re in the CRM or on our Roblox experience, you’re going to be able to see what’s coming next because we have a lot of interesting things up our sleeves.
Go to the Chipotle Burrito Builder on Roblox. It’s an awesome way to experience a brand differently and see how consumers are experiencing the brand.
I love it. I can’t wait to learn more.
Thank you. It’s been fun talking to you.
Thank you so much, Tressie.
Thank you for reading this episode. As a recap, we discussed the Quesadilla, Chipotle’s incredible rewards program, building the Gen Z audience through TikTok and Roblox and so much more. See you next time, everyone. Play on.
Tressie Lieberman, Vice President of Digital Marketing and Off-Premise for Chipotle, is responsible for driving customer engagement and growth of digital ordering occasions. In this role, Lieberman oversees a team dedicated to building relationships with the brand’s community through the metaverse, social media, collaborations, influencers, the Chipotle Rewards loyalty program, and CRM. She also leads the delivery and catering business and creates integrated marketing campaigns to build digital awareness and sales.
Under Lieberman’s leadership, the Chipotle Rewards program has grown to 25 million members in under three years, and the brand has become an industry leading digital business. She has kept Chipotle leading conversations with activations including being the first restaurant brand on TikTok and Roblox, as well as launching collaborations such as a product line with e.l.f. Cosmetics. With a passion for food and innovation, Lieberman also held leadership positions at Snap Kitchen and Taco Bell. At Snap Kitchen, she served as CMO, leading retail partnerships and overseeing a full brand and menu redesign.
During her Taco Bell tenure, Lieberman created an incubator that focused on rapid prototyping, e-commerce, and delivery. She also designed and drove the social media and influencer strategy that positioned Taco Bell to win in youth culture.
Lieberman proudly supports her alma mater, The University of Texas, through guest lectures and student mentorship. She created the Chipotle women’s employee resource group and serves on the Adweek Innovators Council. She has achieved accolades such as being named on the Nation’s Restaurant News Power List, Advertising Age Women to Watch and Business Insider’s Top Influencer Marketers.