Fast-growing chicken chain Chick-fil-A has long been known for sticking to its conservative roots. In a 2010 interview with Ad Age, an exec said the restaurant would sell hamburgers before it would consider opening on a Sunday. But what was once seen as an almost charming quirk of a Southern restaurant is increasingly coming under fire as the franchise funnels money into political causes that are seen as retrograde by large numbers of consumers once willing to give it a pass.
Things came to a head last week when an interview that Chick-fil-A President-Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy did with the Baptist Press hit the internet. In short, Mr. Cathy, son of founder S. Truett Cathy, affirmed the company’s support of what he considers traditional marriage. “Guilty as charged,” Mr. Cathy told the magazine. “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.”
Unlike a lot of people, I’m going to congratulate the Chick-fil-A company for standing up for its values here, and defend their right to do so. If that’s an important core value to the company, they should.
Don’t mistake defending their decision with supporting it. I don’t. Nor do I plan on visiting one of their establishments any time soon. But at least they took an position. How many big companies do that?
But if you want the casebook reason why so many big companies and professional athletes master the skill of “cliche 101″ and never utter anything remotely non-generic, just look at the outfall from this. Chick-fil-A is a company that’s been in expansion mode, moving into new markets, working to take the company and brand nationwide with some success. And this is the sort of hard lesson you learn when you go from “what works in my home town” to “what works everywhere”.
The reason big companies go bland is because bland is what’s palatable everywhere. It’s a difficult thing to try to speak to a nationwide or global audience and not get tripped up here. Remember back in 2003 when Apple introduced iTunes for Windows and proclaimed that Hell had Frozen over with Apple shipping windows software? No, you probably don’t, actually. But it was a big deal — and the state of Virginia threatened to cancel all of its Apple educational contracts because, well, Steve Jobs used a cuss word. Apple changed the ad campaign, and it all mellowed out again.
I use that example because there’s been some complaining by the conservative groups the we shouldn’t be picking on Chick-fil-A for their beliefs. Well, heck, why not? This is a common pressure tactic, and effective. It’s just this time it’s being aimed in the other direction.
The fact is, if you want to influence others with your position, you have my blessing. Please do. But realize that the flip side of that is that people will react to you and your position, and not all of them will be positive. And what may work in your home town or with your core group may not work so well in other regions, or in groups you’re hoping to attract to your brand.
THAT is why big companies go bland and cliche-ridden. And that’s a lesson Chick-fil-A is now learning. And they’re going to have to make a decision, do they want to hold to their values and promote them, and be willing to take the hit in lost customers or sales it might create? Or are you really interested in becoming a national brand and grow in the market?
Most companies choose growth. Honestly, there’s rarely a lot of upside to pushing your agenda. A better strategy is to shut up, take the money you make, and quietly funnel it to support the causes you believe in. That tends to be a lot less controversial; take a look at Curves as an example the Chick-fil-A management can emulate. Don’t think choosing to isolate yourself from the company management will completely protect you, though. Just ask the GoDaddy folks.
This would have likely been a quick and soon forgotten kerfluffle, if it weren’t for the Muppet toy crisis, and here’s where I think Chick-fil-A screwed up. One side effect of this was that the Muppets cancelled their relationship with the company, and that ended a promotion of a toy giveaway. Chick-fil-A announced this as a safety recall, which only gave fresh ammunition to those looking for reasons to criticize them.
For all I know, the claim is true, too. Whether it is or not is irrelevant. The perception here is that they’re covering this up, and no matter how Chick-fil-A tries, the critics will jump on them for this. And it frankly looks bad because they seem to be trying to blame the Muppets for this. If they had simply put up signs saying “because of circumstances beyond our control, we’ve had to cancel this promotion”, nobody would be posting photos of the signs to Facebook and beating them up for this.
To me, it looks like a sour grapes reaction, no matter what the truth is. And by doing it, they give their critics fresh ammunition to sustain the criticism. If they’d used a simpler response that avoided naming the Muppets, they wouldn’t have rebooted this controversy. Unfortunately, they did, and gave it a second wind. Someone in their marketing or PR group should have caught this and short-circuited those signs to something safer.
In the grand scheme of things, this is minor — assuming they don’t pour more gasoline on the fire. It’s a good time to be quiet and let things fade. It’s a good opportunity for a learning opportunity on when to keep your mouth shut, too, especially you’re a small company learning a lesson about what happens when you become a big one…