Commentary

Chick-fil-A May Be Onto Something

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." 

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10 comments about "Chick-fil-A May Be Onto Something".
  1. Christina Ricucci from Millenia 3 Communications , July 20, 2012 at 8:51 a.m.
    Let's quit riding the fence here, folks. Either we live in a country where it's OK and just and necessary to stand up for what you believe, whether or not it's the popular view -- or it's not. If we say yes, people should have the courage of their convictions, free speech blah-blah-blah, then the Cathy family will be betraying their beliefs and their God by looking the other way about an issue on which they believe God's words are clear and uncompromising. On the other hand, if we really only mean that people should be brave enough to stand up for the the all-inclusive view, the celebrity view, the tolerant view -- OK, fine, but please, would somebody PLEASE stand up and say so? Am I living in a dream world? Is everybody really so comfortable with the double standard? Are Hollywood, advertisers, and the general buying community REALLY going to stop buying the products they like based on who believes what about private matters and personal beliefs? Good grief, people -- either grow up or take your ball and go home.
  2. Jim Andrews from IEG , July 20, 2012 at 10:27 a.m.
    The article and the comment above miss the point. This is not about simply standing up for beliefs. This is about discrimination and the denial of constitutional rights. There are certainly ways for a company or brand to show that it is not a faceless conglomerate without giving millions of dollars to organizations trying to deny basic freedoms to millions of Americans. Prejudice as a marketing strategy is a patently offensive idea, Mr. Greenberg.
  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , July 20, 2012 at 10:49 a.m.
    Jim, you are right. Gays now, who is next ? The McCarthys, the Bachmans, the Wests postulate the contagion of hate for their supporters to condone and pay heartily to continue their own paranoia.
  4. Michael Cornette from Bonten Media , July 20, 2012 at 5:28 p.m.
    When looking at the impact these comments might have, keep in mind that Californians passed Proposition 8 which defined marriage between a man and a woman by a 52-48 margin and was passed into law until the CA Supreme Court overturned in August of 2010. Granted, store locations are probably located in those counties where support against the measure was stronger, but it is not like Cathy's comments are drastically off what a majority of Californian's believe. In addition, Cathy is also on record as saying "We're not anti-anybody." A statement was also released stating, "while my family and I believe in the Biblical definition of marriage, we love and respect anyone who disagrees.” Jim, when you talk about denying basic freedoms, speech, above all, must be protected.
  5. Marla Goldstein from Around The Bend Media , July 20, 2012 at 5:28 p.m.
    "What's right is not always popular and what's popular is not always right" The mind boggles at this quote. There is absolutely nothing right about this viewpoint. What Dan Cathy said is appalling to any civilized person. His personal POV shouldn't extend to his corporate brand. Period. End. If Chick-Fil-A wishes to donate to rabidly anti-gay causes and be so public about it, then they must be prepared to accept the consequences of their actions. And let's not bring In-N-Out into this. Yes, there are biblical chapter/verse cites on the bottom rims of the cups. But that's as far as it goes. They don't openly espouse any one religious POV; nor are they closed on Sundays. @ Christina. Go back to HS Civics class. This is not a Freedom of Speech issue. Dan Cathy is free to spout whatever nonsense he chooses. But speech has consequences. And when he takes the money that his business earns from people like me buying his food and then turns around and uses it to support a cause that I openly disavow, then you're darned right that I will no longer support his business with my consumer dollars.
  6. Jim Andrews from IEG , July 20, 2012 at 5:49 p.m.
    Michael: I'm not in any way suggesting that Cathy does not have a right to espouse any position that he wants to take and to use his private company's money any way he wants. My comment was to share with the author of the article my opinion that Cathy's position is discriminatory, pure and simple, and that I find it appalling to suggest that Chik-fil-A is "on to something" because this prejudice may appeal to a segment of the fast-food-buying public. There are many places in this country where businesses could appeal to the majority of the local population by calling for discrimination against blacks, immigrants, Jews, gays, etc. That doesn't make it right. There is a reason we have a judicial system that can overturn the tyranny of the majority, as happened in California.
  7. Michael Cornette from Bonten Media , July 20, 2012 at 5:56 p.m.
    Jim, I think we can agree Cathy has a right to speak his mind, but he has to be prepared to "reap what he sows" so to speak. I don't believe and in no way meant to infer he was "on to something" with his comments and I will apologize if my comments were taken that way. My point was simply to the authors point about how this might impact their "growth markets" in California, even though he specifically mentioned the stores in the Los Angeles area. I apologize for any confusion my comments may have lead to in my initial post.
  8. Jim Andrews from IEG , July 20, 2012 at 6:01 p.m.
    Appreciate the thought, Michael. Just to clarify: The "onto something" quote came from the headline of the article, so I was taking issue with that.
  9. Michael Cornette from Bonten Media , July 20, 2012 at 6:08 p.m.
    I appreciate the clarification. Have a safe weekend.
  10. Thomas Ferro from Bank of America , July 21, 2012 at 9:02 p.m.
    Something about this strikes me as being opportunistic, or maybe just inviting controversy when there is nothing (immediately) material to gain. This is just one quote so hard to judge where he was coming from on this, but on the face of it from a business standpoint it doesn't make sense to potentially alienate a share of the QSR-frequenting public. I just don't think there is such a thing as a Christian, for-profit enterprise. You can claim Christian values and incorporate them into the way you manage your business and treat your stakeholders. Quiet persuasion works. If you want to exercise free speech and support causes that you agree with, go for it. I don't think this rhetoric fits very well with selling chicken. Of course, in an election year, why pass up an opportunity to make your voice heard on key issues which can help motivate folks and get them to the polls? Finally, the whole 'inviting God's judgement' lead-in is just a non-starter if you purport to be a Christian and have any influence on non-believers. Making someone feel judged is not conducive to leading that person to reflect on life and how they live and their relationship with Christ.