By Quentin Fottrell
Chick-fil-A has taken a lot of heat in recent weeks for its opposition to gay marriage. But when the current controversy finally cools, experts say, the brand may do better than ever.
The fast-food chain’s president and COO, Dan Cathy, made several public comments in recent weeks reiterating his opposition to same-sex marriage—those who support it, he said in one interview, were “inviting God’s judgment.” Since then, the Jim Henson Co. and Chick-fil-A ended a licensing agreement for a children’s “puppet meal.” The company’s contributions to groups that oppose gay marriage have gotten more public exposure, and political backlash has followed. The public is weighing in too, of course. On Wednesday, a group of activists is organizing a “National Marriage Equality Day” at Starbucks, a company that supports gay marriage. And last week, thousands of people stood in line for “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” an event kick-started by Mike Huckabee, the radio and TV host and former Republican presidential candidate.
The impact on Chick-fil-A has been mixed. The privately held company said it saw “record-setting” sales after the appreciation day last week, but opinion of its brand nationwide has tumbled, according to a survey by YouGov’s BrandIndex, a measure of brand perception among the public. Chick-fil-A’s brand rating has declined to 28 from 65 on YouGov’s index, far below the average score of 43 for other fast-food chains.
Still, the company has no shortage of outlets in typically conservative states where its stance resonates. The majority of its 1,600 franchises are located in the Midwest and South. Chick-fil-A’s BrandIndex rating in the Midwest temporarily spiked to 70 after one round of public comments by Cathy, though it has fallen since then.
Chick-fil-A declined to comment for this article, directing Pay Dirt to a statement on the company’s website saying it has always operated on “biblically-based principles.” But two branding industry pros — Martin Lindstrom, author of “Brandwashed,” and consultant Rob Frankel — say the company may have ultimately strengthened itself by remaining true to its core base. We asked them where the company should go from here.
Pay Dirt: Do you think Dan Cathy knew what he was doing when he made that statement the first time?
Martin Lindstrom: It seemed like an off-the-cuff comment.
Rob Frankel: I’ll bet next week’s paycheck that it was not deliberate. There are few if any brands that possess the strategic intellectual or creative capacity for plotting something like this. This is like a contained nuclear explosion. You’ve really got to know what you’re doing.
How will this impact the company?
Lindstrom: There are a lot of people who had never even heard of Chick-fil-A before. With the help of social media, millions more people in the U.S. and around the world know about the brand. All those people showing up in favor of the fast-food chain last week is a sign of that.
Frankel: The brand of Chick-fil-A will benefit tremendously from this. In most cases, the actions of the CEO have very little to do with the overall performance of the brand. I predict it will actually increase its revenue and growth in one to two years.
Why do you think this controversy is a good thing?
Lindstrom: It creates a sense of belonging for consumers. Supporting a brand defines who you are and who you are not. That’s why people turned up in the thousands to buy [sandwiches] at Chick-fil-A. What has that got to do with sexual relationships and marriage? Not a lot. But it’s a way for people to show their opinion and be part of a community.
Frankel: More people have now heard about Chick-fil-A. They won’t necessarily go hunting for a Chick-fil-A sandwich, but when there are four fast-food chains to choose from, they will be curious about their sandwiches. Are they as crunchy as the chicken you get at KFC? Some people will want to find out.
Cathy’s statement upset a lot of people who regard same-sex marriage as a civil right.
Lindstrom: With a civil rights issue, the brand risks getting left behind, so normally I would say this was a stupid thing to do. But there is some logic from a branding point of view. An estimated 44% of people still oppose gay marriage; that’s a huge target group.
Frankel: This isn’t close to a civil rights issue. It’s a hot topic for the presidential elections. This is way more about freedom of speech than gay marriage.
What should Chick-fil-A do now?
Lindstrom: Brands should stand up for what they believe. Consumers don’t respond to bland branding. There’s too much of that perfect stuff out there. If they do it right, the company will attract more conservative customers and others who don’t care one way or the other.
Frankel: They should stick to their knitting. In this case: selling chicken.
J.C. Penney shows same-sex couples in its catalogs. Microsoft, Amazon, Nike and Starbucks have all come out in favor of gay marriage in an upcoming referendum in Washington state. Bud Light, Coca-Cola and Johnson & Johnson are among the companies that have sponsored gay pride parades. Are brands becoming more politicized?
Lindstrom: In the future, we’ll see two types of brands: Those appealing to the general masses, and those that aim to raise awareness on certain issues. People will either love or hate them. Some brands have done that successfully. Ben and Jerry’s and The Body Shop were very opinionated and politically left wing. Both were bought out by multinationals.
Frankel: The activists and media like to think that people care. But you will barely see the needle move in the short- or long-term. Anita Bryant, known for her strong views against homosexuality, was a spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Commission. Her contract lapsed in 1979 and most people did not stop drinking Florida orange juice.
What is your position on Dan Cathy’s comments?
Lindstrom: Same-sex marriage is perfectly fine. This has been allowed for 15 years in my native Denmark. The U.S. is 15 years behind.
Frankel: I don’t like to get tagged on a particular issue like this. But I am as strong an advocate for personal freedom as you’ll ever find.
You’re hungry, you’re at a crossroads, there’s a Chick-fil-A on one corner and a KFC on the other. Which way do you turn?
Lindstrom: I’m curious enough to go into the Chick-fil-A to see how the staff is handling it because I’m a branding guy, but unfortunately I’m not going to buy anything in there.
Frankel: I think I’d let my taste buds decide. Ultimately, that’s what most customers will do.