Is Chick-fil-A scion and COO Dan Cathy too big for his brand for having thumped the Good Book to advocate against gay marriage? To wit, Cathy has said the U.S. is "inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.'" He later pointed out that the company is a family-owned business, a family-led business, "and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that."
Okay, so does the Atlanta-based chain now have a problem? If you grew up in the South, you grew up with Chick-Fil-A and probably aren't scratching your head too much about the brouhaha around Cathy's stance. And if you grew up and live in a place where hybrid is an agricultural term, pit barbecues and pickups with gun racks are ubiquitous and Peet's Coffee and Priuses are about as easy to spot as the Higgs Boson, you won't give any of this a second thought.
A potential problem for the 45-year-old company is that while its over 1,600 stores are mostly in the Sun Belt, the franchise is rapidly expanding into Blue States and metro regions, at a reported 75-store-per-year clip. Chick-fil-A has over a dozen stores in the greater Chicago area, and a franchise at New York University (a stone's throw from Stonewall, one might add.) The company is also wrangling to open a spot in Santa Rosa near San Francisco. It has a presence in Washington, D.C., where it has experimented with a Chick-fil-A food truck.
And Los Angeles, where the chain has at least nine stores -- more if you count the larger regional footprint -- is one of its biggest growth markets. That could be a problem because Hollywood players have called the company out: actor Ed Helms of “The Office” and the gay rights campaign NOH8, in which “Glee” actress Jane Lynch, Deepak Chopra, Miley Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan and the Kardashian sisters are involved, has called for a boycott. The Los Angeles Times reports that Food Network star and "Iron Chef" Michael Symon tweeted that he would never eat there again. No -- this won't matter to conservative consumers and those in Chick-fil-A's stomping grounds for whom this above list embodies the evils of cultural relativism, moral depravity, and all things Hollywood. But it might muck up the message for everyone else.
"This is a killer for them,” argues marketing expert Jack Trout, head of Greenwich, Conn.-based Trout & Partners. “[Cathy] is just opening the door to a lot of problems. Look, he's selling chicken, not his family values. It's a mistake."
Still -- and perhaps this is a stretch -- could Cathy's volubility on the gay marriage/traditional values thing work for the company the way bible passages on In-N-Out burger wrappers are part of that company's identity? Heck, Chick-fil-A has long had an obvious religious brand identity: all its stores are closed on Sunday. To extend the idea, could one make a "Shaker Furniture" argument here?
At a time when companies are global, a lot of "American" brands are made in China, and QSRs are perceived as Wall Street firms that cook meat between mergers and acquisitions, and where underpaid, angry employees stomp on lettuce, could fundamentalist religious beliefs and "family values" help Chick-fil-A? Does Cathy's evangelical conservatism (and savvy mention about the family basis of the company) humanize the brand in a way that differentiates the chain from -- I don't know -- Yum! Brands, which used to be called Tricon Corporation, which sounds like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel?
If you don't think this matters, consider Nationwide's just-launched campaign where one of the major points is that the insurance company does not have a puppet-master on Wall Street. Heck, one of the suits at Yum! is a director at J.P. Morgan. What's he know about chicken -- am I right? Hand me a napkin.
Brand strategist Adam Hanft, CEO of marketing firm Hanft Projects, would agree. "Look, I think clearly there's a hunger for brands with a soul, no pun intended,” he says. “There's a frustration with companies that have a complete lack of authenticity." Hanft, who is also a blogger for sites like CNN, AOL, and The Huffington Post, points out that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to discern this attitude, which is no doubt exacerbated by corporate consolidation that turns brands into holdings, and the faceless suits and quants who brought us the mortgage security disaster and the current Libor scandal (which, as one headline puts it, "exposes Wall Street's rotten core.")
"It's a big reason Obama's Bain Capital commercial against Romney is so effective," says Hanft. "It resonates with people; corporate clones aren't appealing." He also argues that Cathy's opinions won't alienate many people and may even buy him slack with people who are in the middle on gay marriage. "I don't think he did this for the sake of expediency, and people will see this."
Hanft also makes the cogent point that it's probably more transparent to put your mouth where your money is, rather than anonymously giving to Citizens United-enabled PACs. "People will see him as a guy who has the guts and fortitude to say what he believes; we are so full of corporate, mealy-mouthed PowerPoint language that has been polished to death that someone looks good just by being forward and direct, and doesn't hide behind anonymous giving. I think he will get reluctant credit versus a company that says nothing but gives tons of money to anti-gay PACs." Hanft doesn't see the boycott working. "They are very rarely successful. They start with lots of momentum, but at the end of day they produce little economic impact."
Jeff Bander, president of marketing firm EyeTrackShop, concurs. "Really, he's not as concerned as others are about how it will affect his business. What's right is not always popular and what's popular is not always right; most people [in his position] put their finger in the air and poll what the majority wants to hear. Also, publicity is sometimes good even if it's bad; he will get a lot of it. Finally, most people will say it's what he believes and he's willing to stand up for it even though he knows he'll get flack for it."
And, hey, it has worked for JCPenney, which might be perceived as having taken a position at "the other church" (through its use of Ellen DeGeneres as spokesperson, and ads featuring same-sex couples are arguably about inclusion, not gay rights.) And one commenter below a story about Oreos' Gay Pride Rainbow cookie said, "It's all about attention." Well, the department store chain has garnered a lot of that, plus general kudos both for its advertising, and for not backing down to threats from the American Family Association front "One Million Moms," whose boycott raised as big a chorus as a 9 a.m. Monday sermon. Is anyone really not going to buy an Oreo any more? Please.
But Trout argues that it's just bad business for an executive to use his position as a bully pulpit, especially now that the Web's immediate perfusion of content turns personal opinion into brand identity. "Sure, if you are in that world where people will agree with you, it could be a plus, but as soon as you leave that neighborhood and are into areas where people won't agree, and where that position is controversial, and what you're saying gets magnified online, you've got real problems," he says. "Frankly, that's where an agency should step in and say 'you have to be careful here. You have to leave your own likes and dislikes out of the situation.' Chick-fil-A's enemy is beef, not same-sex marriage. This is a God versus Caesar issue."