Brand management the Chick-fil-A way

It doesn’t matter who your brand strategy alienates so long as you keep your target market happy

Mark Ritson

Most Brits are probably unfamiliar with Chick-fil-A. The brand was founded in 1967 in Atlanta, Georgia, and thanks to sales in excess of $4bn (£2.5bn) last year, it is now the tenth biggest fast food chain in the US. But it’s not the sales figures that have been catching attention recently.

On July 2nd the brand’s president, Dan Cathy, told a North Carolina Baptist website that his privately owned company supported the “biblical definition of the family unit”. Cathy was actually speaking out about the prevalence of divorce in the US but the Los Angeles Times republished his comments under the headline: “Is Chick-fil-A anti-gay marriage?”.

Several days later in a radio interview Cathy seemed to confirm that he was indeed opposed to gay marriage. “When we shake our fist at Him and say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,” he said, “we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation.” He then offered up a prayer for God’s mercy for a generation that has “such a prideful, arrogant attitude that thinks we have the audacity to redefine what marriage is all about.”

Ready for another Gerald Ratner-style “CEO goes mental and destroys his own business” denouement? Not this time.

The past month has proven to be Chick-fil-A’s most successful on record and the brand appears poised for enormous future growth. No matter how wrong we may consider Cathy’s views, he is having marketing success.

Before we go any further let me make a public announcement. I believe gay people should have the same rights as anyone else. That includes the right to fall in love, get married, get divorced, be unhappy – the whole shebang. Sadly, I also believe that Cathy’s stance will probably prove to be one of the smartest acts of brand management for 2012. I wish that wasn’t going to be the case, but sometimes the truth fails to fit your personal beliefs or the path that we wish it would adhere to.

Opposing the right of gay people to marry is consistent with current American law and completely in line with the positioning that the Chick-fil-A brand has adopted for nearly half a century. The brand was founded by Cathy’s father, Truett, on what the company now calls “biblically-based principles to managing business”. The organisation is run without any debt as per the Old Testament’s instructions. It also donates millions of its profits each year to Christian charities including those dedicated to preserving the traditional “sanctity” of marriage. And every one of its 1,500 outlets closes on Sunday.

Chick-fil-A’s brand management is not about being generally well liked by everone. If that means upsetting people outside its target market – so be it

Chick-fil-A’s stance also resonates with the brand’s target customers. That might appear to be unlikely given that a consistent majority of Americans now support the idea of gay marriage. But who cares about the whole nation? When we discuss brand strategy the only numbers that matter are those derived from the target market. And those numbers point in an entirely different direction from those of the masses.

For starters, Chick-fil-A is a Southern brand. And among Southerners, gay marriage remains an unpopular concept compared with the opinions of their northern cousins.
More importantly, Chick-fil-A is a Republican brand. According to polling firm Scarborough Research, some brands are heavily weighted with supporters of one of America’s two major parties. Democrats, according to the research, prefer Whole Foods, drink vodka and love to drive a Subaru. Republicans, in contrast, prefer Dr Pepper, like darker spirits and really love Chick-fil-A.

That’s crucial to the success of the company’s stance because although more than two-thirds of Democrats favour gay marriage, Republicans oppose the idea by an extraordinary twenty to one majority.

By appearing to stand against gay marriage Cathy has alienated a huge sway of the American population – most of whom had never even been to a Chick-fil-A. But in exchange for that tiny loss, he has strengthened the brand’s equity among right-wing and Southern consumers who were already much more likely to be patrons and who are now even more likely to frequent it.
Last week, for example, former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee organised a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day to support the company’s “Christian principles” and the queues for meals that day made headlines around the nation. Other right-wing politicians have also voiced support and Chick-fil-A is reportedly struggling to cope with the surge in demand for its meals.

Ultimately, we must remember one of the most important principles of brand management. It’s not about being generally well liked by everyone. It’s about inspiring passion and patronage from the smaller sub-set of people who constitute your target market. If that means rejecting, upsetting or infuriating those outside the target segment – so be it.

God might love everyone, but brands only care about the faithful.

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