Chick Fil-A Fiasco: Building the Brand Your Customers Want to Support



Brian Cantor
08/05/2012

From a debate standpoint, the recent Chick Fil-A controversy reflects rather negatively on the state of intellectual discourse as it relates to social issues.

From a branding standpoint, however, it sheds light on the challenging reality of building a brand in the so-called "age of the customer."

Previously a cult favorite for young, progressive Northeasterners who revere it the way they do fellow unfamiliar fast food chain In-N-Out, Chick Fil-A recently enraged a portion of that segment—and many other segments--by trumpeting an oppositional stance towards marriage between homosexuals.

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Chick Fil-A was certainly not the first brand to contribute money to political organizations that oppose gay marriage—Target recently came under fire for the same thing—but it was unique in its willingness to aggressively defend those contributions. Whereas an organization like Target attributed its actions to alignment with the groups’ other issue stances, and in fact introduced product lines to demonstrate support for the homosexual community, Chick Fil-A affirmed its "biblical" perspective towards marriage.

"Guilty as charged," said Cathy regarding the allegation that he and his business support a traditional definition of marriage. "We are very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that."

For progressive persons and nearly all opinionated media, this was a shocking viewpoint. It is one thing to support conservative organizations for business reasons, but to actually agree with their moral and social stances is seen as nothing short of blasphemy.

"Boneheaded" Analysis of Chick Fil-A’s "Blunder"

Linking to a BusinessWeek article on the matter, LinkedIn Today bluntly referenced Chick Fil-A’s "PR sins." A Yahoo! Business article discussed the recent controversy in a report on Chick Fil-A’s "boneheaded" PR moves.

But reality suggests those stances are exaggerated. While it is not especially wise for a brand to adopt a public stance that angers media and socially-entrenched demographics, Chick Fil-A did just achieve record sales on its "Appreciation Day." It hardly brought itself to the edge of bankruptcy with its decision to trumpet a conservative vision of marriage and, in fact, mobilized customers who share its vision on the family dynamic.

Though polls are beginning to show majority national support for legally-recognizing gay marriage, significant opposition still exists, especially within key Chick Fil-A states. And so if the media is going to call Chick Fil-A boneheaded for adopting a stance opposed by many Americans, should it not also chastise companies like Amazon for their pro-gay marriage stance?

Those specifically targeting Chick Fil-A over this issue are also exposing a degree of naivetê. The liberal president of the United States only recently declared his support of gay marriage, and many congressional candidates vying for votes in the 2012 election will proudly campaign in support of the traditional family. Do the enraged customers and media truly believe Chick Fil-A is the only major business led by people who oppose gay marriage?

Given Chick Fil-A’s long-standing, public commitment to Christianity, it is similarly unclear why customers are so shocked by the restaurant chain’s position on gay marriage. While the link between strong Christian faith and belief in a traditional conception of marriage is not inevitable in 2012, it still does exist, and it thus seems rather unintuitive to assume a religion-guided business that closes its doors on Sundays would advocate for a progressive marriage definition.

And, on top of everything, given that Chick Fil-A’s position on gay marriage is not new, how does the revelation actually change the business? Management feels the same way about the marriage definition that it did last year, and so if customers were satisfied by their past experiences, there is no reason to assume the restaurant is suddenly going to introduce bigoted, intolerant dining policies.

Granted, it is not as if Chick Fil-A’s contingent of supporters is demonstrating flawless intellect. The group, led by notables like Mike Huckabee, rallied around the notion of "free speech," as if the ongoing controversy is specifically about First Amendment rights.

Though a case can certainly be made that the few politicians who implied Chick Fil-A would be unwelcome in their cities were infringing upon the chain's rights, many of Chick Fil-A opponents are not actually trying to censor the restaurant and its leadership. They are simply criticizing the merits, morality and progressivism (or lack thereof) of the chain's viewpoint. That is actually free speech at work--just as media and enraged consumers cannot prevent Chick Fil-A from sharing its opinion, they similarly should feel free to react accordingly.

In reality, the extensive support customers have shown for Chick Fil-A these past few days is just as likely linked to an ongoing love for the restaurant’s food (one that supersedes reaction to its political positions), agreement with Chick Fil-A’s position on gay marriage or perhaps even actual homophobia as it is support for "free speech."

If the same level of outrage instead erupted over Chick Fil-A adopting a pro-gay marriage stance, would the exact same contingent of individuals being complaining about an attack on free speech?

Debating branding

But right or wrong, justified or not, the media is going to react how it feels its readers want it to react. Customers are going react how they choose to react. As such, no amount of clever argumentation is likely to convince individuals to dismiss their instinctual reactions to Chick Fil-A’s public support for traditional marriage.

Brands, therefore, need to assure they are erring on the side of customer sentiment—not necessarily defensible logic—when choosing to support an issue or organization.

What is so fascinating here, however, is the fact that Chick Fil-A is not suddenly choosing to support a new social cause but simply affirming the outlook it has long maintained. It makes sense that an organization’s sudden decision to "go green" will fuel a renewed public perception, but as noted earlier, Chick Fil-A is not changing its policy. It has always been religiously-driven, and it has always maintained this traditional view of the family. Its policies, therefore, have always been directed by people who oppose gay marriage—and if there was nothing inherently discriminatory about the Chick Fil-A experience a few months or years ago, there is no reason to believe anything will change moving forward.

It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the outraged customers and journalists are condemning Chick Fil-A on grounds that they do not like or agree with the philosophies of the people who run the business rather than actual frustration with the organization. In the relationship-driven "era of the customer," that stance is logical enough, but it then begs the question of why customers do not seek to learn the political affiliations of all brands with whom they do business. If Chick Fil-A’s opposition to gay marriage was going to be an automatic dealbreaker, would it not have behooved the concerned customers to proactively inquire about whether the Christian-led organization that closes its stores on Sundays possessed that opposition?

Consider the Seinfeld episode "The Couch," which addressed the still-controversial abortion issue. During a dinner discussion at recurring character Poppie’s restaurant, Elaine chastises Jerry for frequenting local pizzeria Paccino’s, noting its contributions to those "fanatical anti-abortion groups." Since Paccino’s’ opposition to abortion deters Elaine from eating there, Jerry naturally ponders whether Elaine would adopt the same stance if Poppie, too, opposed abortion. "Perhaps we should inquire," Jerry laments, before he and Elaine learn that Poppie is indeed "pro-life." They leave the restaurant.

Few customers, however, are that bold and proactive. They might convince themselves they care deeply about the personalities and moralities behind brands, and they might even choose to spend more money with those brands who support causes of personal significance. But when push comes to shove, customers are not necessarily in the habit of surveying brands to learn their perspective on every possible political issue. Their decision to "supersize" at McDonald’s is rarely predicated on whether the manager of that McDonald’s is planning to vote for Romney or Obama this November.

Customers will not go out of the way to care about a brand’s social and moral stances, but if the brand actively promotes its position, the ballgame significantly changes. If customers are beaten over the head by the brand’s politics, caring becomes difficult to avoid, and their level of philosophical alignment with the brand will consequently influence their buying decisions.

The recycling dilemma serves as a valuable metaphor. As New Yorkers can certainly confirm, recycling bins are not always readily available, and many will consequently throw paper and plastic into regular trash cans.

That reality should not, however, be viewed as a negative referendum on recycling. If a recycling bin were placed next to every garbage can, forcing individuals to choose whether or not to care about the environment, many of the aforementioned individuals would gladly put their paper and plastic in the proper receptacle.

Brands are subject to that same phenomenon. Though Chick Fil-A and its executives have always been guided by a certain philosophy towards religion and social issues, their position on matters like gay marriage had not previously been so public. As such, willful ignorance was the convenient choice, and customers could reasonably develop loyalty based on the quality of the business’ goods and services rather than the politics of its organization.

But once that stance became public, it became an integral part of the buying process. With the marriage stance significantly more difficult to avoid, it is now reasonable for customers to consider that viewpoint, and the result is that buyers will change their perspective of Chick Fil-A. Some will like the restaurant chain more. Others will go to despise it. But regardless of the specific impact, the position is now etched into Chick Fil-A’s identity.

Brands like Starbucks, Nike and Chipotle have proven that in today’s business climate, breaking silence on topical issues can be very fruitful. But there is always a risk involved, and when embarking on such a path, brands not only have to consider how the media and the social customer will react but also how the existing customer base’s perception of the organization will change.

Love for a brand is not unconditional. Just as a bad customer service interaction can erase a customer’s years of loyalty to the business, so too can the introduction of a policy stance with which he does not agree