After 19 Years Building Chipotle’s Brand, Executive Offers Advice to Wooster Students, Community Members

William Espey gave annual James R. Wilson Lecture, visited students in classrooms and at APEX

WOOSTER, Ohio – William Espey, the branding expert behind one of the fastest growing companies over the last two decades, shared priceless advice and business lessons while also exemplifying the benefits of a liberal arts education to several audiences at The College of Wooster on Oct 3-4 as part of the annual James R. Wilson Lecture in Business Economics.

william espey chipotle speaker
William Espey, a longtime marketing executive with Chipotle, spent time with students at a marketing class as well as this session at APEX during his visit to campus.

Espey, who also last week completed a 19-year run with Chipotle Mexican Grill, during which the restaurant chain grew from around 10 locations when he started to more than 2,000 in the U.S. and abroad, powerfully discussed his idea that “branding is everything” to groups that included Wooster students, faculty, and staff, as well as local business leaders.

The “genius of naiveté,” described in one way as Chipotle’s original owner, unbeknownst at the time (1993), developing a “revolutionary restaurant” that served “food with integrity,” quickly, and at a low price point, allowed Espey’s arrival as its first marketing creative. And shortly after, the chain exploded due in large part for its ability to develop an authentic, innovative, and cohesive brand.

Espey’s version of branding is not about logos, company colors, or other traditional marketing tools, but developing the brand as a personality and sharing the company’s values at “every single touch point” of a customer’s experience. When effective, that creates emotional connections and turns into long-lasting relationships.

The lesson (and Espey’s personal visit) carried great weight with students in professor Joe Histen’s marketing class, one in particular being Gio Tramonto, a senior economics and mathematics double major from Chicago who is part of a start-up company. “To know that values are important, that it’s not some wishy-washy thing you see on Mad Men … those are things and advices that I can’t find on-line, things I can’t find on Facebook, and things I can’t even read in a book sometimes. So, to get that medium is extremely valuable,” he said.

When Espey started in 1999, Chipotle’s values were simply an extension of his own “personal expression,” such as the text on the packaging that read, “It’s not just a burrito. It’s a foil-wrapped, hand-crafted, local farm supporting, food culture changing cylinder of deliciousness.” He successfully related to a sizable segment of the buying public, with another example being concise advertisements featuring a single burrito wrapped in shiny foil. What was inside was left to the viewer’s imagination – their favorite ingredients.

“I think one of the things that happens in school is you get to hear all the theory and the academic side and … more application-based things, but to hear someone (who was) in the trenches … I don’t even know if you could put a price on that,” Tramonto added.

Also of interest, Espey, who spent about 10 years as Chipotle’s sole marketing creative and then served as its brand voice lead, revealed that when he started there he had limited marketing experience, underscoring the importance of the liberal arts education. A 1988 graduate of Bowdoin College, he never took a marketing class while majoring in art history and economics, began his career in finance in Boston, then spent several years in the center of the fashion world (Milan, Italy) before returning to his Denver roots and discovering Chipotle.

“I took one econ class every semester, but I had three other classes in other things that I found interesting. Well, lo and behold, what I found interesting was art history and religion and philosophy and all these things. And, what do I end up doing for a living now? I speak in metaphoric symbol. That is art history and religion. I made a career of what I really love,” remarked Espey.