Standing out from the crowd today is tough. No matter what industry you’re in, the soaring threat of competition is an on-going concern. So how do you rise above the noise, and distinguish your business in a sea of sameness?

Steve Ells never intended to be in the fast-food business for long. A classically trained chef, he only opened a burrito joint in order to raise funds for a fine-dining restaurant.

From the outset, Steve’s lack of knowledge led him down a path that was the total opposite of a fast-food operator. In an industry famed for cheap ingredients and nasty additives, Ells bought fresh produce, and insisted that it was cooked directly in house.

Fast-forward twenty years, and Steve has yet to open a fine-dining establishment. His Mexican fast-food chain Chipotle, has mushroomed into 1,800 outlets, staffed by a team of 40,000. It feeds 800,000 customers daily and turns over in excess of $3Bn per annum.

So, how did one guy take on the fast-food giants and win? He found his dragon.

Success without suffering

It’s widely known that fast-food product quality is pretty poor. But Steve Ells has always believed that just because food is fast, doesn’t mean it has to be unpleasant.

After his first Chipotle restaurant expanded to multiple sites, Ells began to fanatically obsess about the origin of his ingredients. He visited numerous pig farms and was shocked to learn that the majority of the pork in the United States was raised in confinement, fed a cocktail of drugs, and had no access to sunlight or pasture.

Steve didn’t want this suffering and exploitation to be part of Chipotle’s success. Factory farming became the dragon he wanted to slay. So, even though it meant paying more for his ingredients, Steve refused to source meat from farms that entertained these practises.

“If you want an audience, start a fight.” – Irish proverb

As a result of a higher overhead, he had no choice but to increase the cost of his burritos to his customers. But a funny thing happened. Chipotle’s sales went up by 200%. It appeared that Steve’s customers didn’t mind paying more for better quality and taste.

Build a community, not just a company

By establishing a clear enemy, Chipotle has been able to rally people around a cause that transcends the typical profit motive of an enterprise.

They’ve communicated a clear picture of the world they want to live in.

Because Chipotle is willing to pay a premium for produce that has been ethically raised, farmers who share Chipotle’s values are given a financial incentive to change their ways. Through learning about sustainable agriculture in their work, employees are changing the way their families eat. And customers who care about where their food comes from, are more likely to choose a restaurant like Chipotle.

Chipotle isn’t just a company; it’s a community that believes in “food with integrity”.

Chipotle now serves more local produce than any other restaurant company in the United States. In 2013, it became the first restaurant chain to voluntarily disclose the presence of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) in its food. And this year, it succeeded in fully switching to serving food made only with non-GMO ingredients.

Marketing values, not vouchers

Unlike its competition, Chipotle doesn’t talk about its latest menu item, or money-saving offer in its marketing and communications. It talks about its dragon.

In a short film produced in 2011, Chipotle told the story of a farmer who had allowed his family estate to be transformed into one of the factory farms Chipotle is against. But, he realises the error of his ways, and moves back to a more sustainable farming method.

Viewers were urged to download the accompanying song – a Willie Nelson cover of “The Scientist” by Coldplay. Proceeds from every download went to the “Chipotle Cultivate Foundation”, a charity setup by Steve Ells to encourage sustainable farming.

More recently, rather than creating advertising that interrupts entertainment, Chipotle decided to become the entertainment. They created “Farmed and Dangerous”, a four-part miniseries exclusive to Hulu. The show features the fictional corporation “Animoil”, that has devised a money-saving scheme to feed cows petrol-based animal pellets.

Rather than traditional product placement, Chipotle instead integrated its dragon at the heart of the initiative, with the aim of exposing unethical farming practices, and making people think about the origins of their food.

The show has since become the most successful original content ever on Hulu.

By identifying the dragon it wants to slay, and putting it at the centrepiece of its entire operation, Chipotle isn’t just telling a story, it’s living one. Its heart-felt belief in “food with integrity” has helped distinguish it in the hyper-competitive world of fast-food.

Finding your dragon

Regardless of your industry, you have the opportunity to use the power of a dragon.

A dragon can serve as a strong differentiator. It can help you build greater loyalty and advocacy. It can grow marketshare. It can help you battle against bigger industry giants.

But as Chipotle has demonstrated, a dragon is a deeply personal thing. It’s a philosophy driven by heart-felt values, not just something that can be manufactured, or bolted on. For it to be effective, it needs to be baked in to the very essence of your company.

In order to begin to frame your own dragon, take a moment to ask yourself the following:

  • What would you never compromise on, even if it meant going out of business?
  • What really frustrates you, or drives you crazy about your industry?
  • What is it, in ten years from now that you really want to have impacted?
  • What do you want people to remember you for?
  • What ambition do you have, that transcends financial success?

If you’re a cosmetics company, you might get annoyed by allergenic additives. If you’re a application developer, you might get frustrated by software that’s unwieldy to use. Or if you’re a retailer, you might seethe at poor customer service.

Once identified, your dragon can become the innovation for products, the platform for marketing, and the unifying factor that turns your company into a community. Chipotle’s daily fight against the dragon of factory farming is far more meaningful and compelling than selling burritos alone; it paints a clear vision of the world they want to live in.

A dragon helps enlist followers on your quest, turning your organisation into something people buy into, not just buy from. Who is your dragon? What is the world you want to live in? And how can your organisation become the catalyst that helps build it?