Three Cheers for Chick-fil-A (And Why I'll Never Eat There Again)

The Brand's Just Being What It Claims to Be, Like It or Not

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You know the story so far. Chick-fil-A's CEO rather colorfully declared that his privately-owned company "backed" traditional marriage. The mayors of Boston and Chicago responded that the chain is not welcome in their cities. Like-minded national politicians designated this Wednesday "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day," and opponents named Friday "National Same-Sex Kiss Day at Chick-fil-A."

Chick-fil-A's PR people lamely announced that the company treats gay employees and customers the same as everybody else, and that it intends "...to leave the policy debate...to the government and political arena." I'm sure the consensus view from communications pros has been for the company to back off and otherwise shut up.

Good luck with that . CEO Dan Cathy has doubled-down on his statements. LGBT advocates have unearthed proof that the company gives money to Christian groups, at least one of which actively lobbies government to promote its agenda ("Support Chick-fil-A as they stand for Traditional Marriage" is front-and-center on the Family Research Council website). Stay tuned for the lawsuits from employees who've felt discriminated against because of their non-Christian views, or customers who say they were profiled and thereafter treated poorly, or worse. This thing isn't going away anytime soon.

And it shouldn't, because Chick-fil-A isn't doing anything other than being the business it claims to be. So I say three cheers for them, even though it means some folks (including myself) will never eat there again.

There are at least three truths that we can learn from this story that every CMO should take to heart:

First, your corporate social responsibility is a joke compared to your company's operations. Corporate social-responsibility campaigns are not so much proof of moral commitment as they are an easy way around difficult or conflicting issues (like junk-food companies sponsoring healthy eating campaigns or the Olympics, for instance). Chick-fil-A has the audacity to walk its talk; after all, this is a company that has never been open on Sundays, which is blunt proof that it puts its values at the core of its operations. Those values are plastered all over the company and Cathy family websites, which makes its branding clear, easy to understand and consistent, which ultimately makes it believable, whether you like it or not. Imagine the potential benefits if your business functioned so true to what you claim matters to your brand.

Second, beware the impact of unintended consequences. While Chick-fil-A's commitment to Christian values was never a secret, I doubt many people thought about how those values affected its business decisions. Being reminded that it relies on a 2,000-year-old text that was never intended to be a business how-to book makes one wonder what else the company is doing that 's similarly detached from the requirements of the marketplace. Does Chick-fil-A find reasons to reject otherwise great vendors because they might be gay, for instance? Whatever a business says also says something about everything else it says, or does.

Do you consider what your successful but otherwise stupid social campaign suggests to people about your brand (let alone your critical judgment)? What does an aggressive legal strategy tell them? How about the moral consequences of a crazy huge CEO compensation package?

Finally, there's no such thing as "just business." Every brand functions in society and culture. While there'll certainly be customers who change their habits and start to regularly (if not exclusively) patronize Chick-fil-A because they support its values, there'll be others who will skip it because they don't want their meal purchases used to fund changing the lifestyles of others.

I'll never give them a dime because I don't buy into the twisted logic that confuses stopping gay people from being married with helping straight people get and stay married. What any of this has to do with eating chicken and waffle fries baffles me, but the company has chosen to make such distinctions a part of our culture and, by default, my decision-making process.

Transparency such that Chick-fil-A has embraced is coming to your brand soon. As Target learned after it had donated to a PAC in Minnesota whose candidate opposed gay rights, what you support will never stay secret forever, and the dicey choices you think your business has to make need also to survive scrutiny in the light of day (as corporate contributors to pro-business group ALEC learned when its voter registration activities became known). It might be time assess things.

I applaud Chick-fil-A for having the honesty to tell the truth, and then the integrity to stand by it. I couldn't recommend mimicking its decisions, but the implications of having made them should be studied by every marketer: Be real. Understand context. No secrets. What this company has done to itself over the past week or so is a concentrated sample of what is already washing over every brand.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is president of Baskin Associates, a marketing-decisions consultancy, and author of "Tell The Truth." You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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