Marketing experts always applaud a company’s efforts to define its brand image in ways that appeal to its intended audience.
They just don’t recommend that management accomplish that objective by attacking the lifestyles and beliefs of millions of potential customers.
Target marketing probably wasn’t his objective, however, when Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy was quoted in a religious magazine saying, “I think we are 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.’ ”
In the wake of his statement, and additional comments made on a radio show, restaurant brand consultants are warning that the Atlanta-based fast-food chain, which had enjoyed a rather benign image due to a humorous ad campaign featuring cows holding signs reading “Eat Mor Chikin,” stands to lose millions in revenue if customers associate the company with polarizing political issues instead of tasty food choices.
Even a 1% drop in revenue for the privately held company, which reportedly earns about $4 billion a year, could be costly.
On one side, the outrage over Cathy’s remarks was palpable.
Gay and lesbian groups called for protests at a store opening next week in California and urged same-sex couples to kiss at Chick-fil-A locations on National Same-Sex Kiss Day next week.
Muppets creator Jim Henson’s company—a unit of Disney—severed a toy deal recently launched with the chain. A statement on its Facebook page noted that, “The Jim Henson Company has celebrated and embraced diversity and inclusiveness for over fifty years and we have notified Chick-fil-A that we do not wish to partner with them on any future endeavors. Lisa Henson, our CEO, has directed us to donate the payment we received from Chick-fil-A to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.”
News reports later revealed that Chick-fil-A personnel were telling customers the toys had been discontinued because of unspecified “defects.”
(And in a fascinating sideshow to toymageddon, allegations surfaced that Chick-fil-A’s PR people had attempted to quell the Muppet controversy by creating a fake teen-ager to refute the negative comments flowing on Facebook. The poster, named Abby Farle, admonished another poster who stated that the Muppet toys were dumped “because [Chick-Fil-A] were bigots” that, “They took back the toys weeks ago, Chris. Check your information.” Minutes later, other posters noted that “Abby Farle” had joined Facebook only hours earlier and under the subject line “Busted!” revealed that her profile photo was in fact a royalty-free head shot from image vendor Shutterstock.)
Meanwhile, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Chicago aldermanProco “Joe” Morenoboth announced efforts to block the chain’s efforts to expand in their cities.
In a Chicago Tribune op-ed piece, Moreno wrote that, “I heard the bigoted, homophobic comments by Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy, who recently came out against same-sex marriage.There are consequences for one’s actions, statements and beliefs. Because of this man’s ignorance, I will deny Chick-fil-A a permit to open a restaurant in my ward.”
Of course, that response didn’t sit well with a lot of people, either, even those who paint themselves as sympathetic to gays. Numerous online comments and letters to the editor in both cities decried efforts to punish the restaurant chain merely for exercising its free speech rights.
Two sides to the debate
On the other side, predictably, were those who cheered on Cathy.
Ex-Arkansas governor and now Fox News TV host Mike Huckabee declared next Wednesday to be National Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, in support of the company. Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum Tweeted that he was “eating at Chick-fil-A and pouring sauce over everything.” And online petitions supporting Cathy’s stance on traditional marriage are drawing thousands of signatures.
In business,it’s axiomatic that the safest course is to steer clear of political or religious controversies. No matter how you frame your position, for all of the people who might support it, there will be many others who will disagree.
Yes, there is something admirable about standing on principle, about running a business with higher goals than the bottom line.
In this case, though, I can only wish that Cathy had chosen some other cause to embrace. Childhood hunger, poverty, obesity—there’s a long list of issues to which he could have connected his restaurant chain’s marketing.
Alienating millions of potential gay and lesbian customers—and no doubt more than a few employees—isn’t just bad business, it’s bad news for our larger society already divided along so many religious and political fractures.
Cathy and Chick-fil-A would have been better off to mimic the Muppets they were handing out to kids.
Their stance is all about acceptance for everyone who’s little, who’s green or who’s different from others.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.