This chicken sandwich doesn’t reflect my political views OR When Personal Beliefs and Brands Don’t Mix.

Should highly visible C-Level executives state their political and religious opinions freely without fear of repercussion to the brand?

I didn’t ask if they can. I asked if they should. Should we defend what is Constitutionally correct if it is strategically inconsistent with the brand?

“The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect — regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender.”
– Chick-fil-A Company Statement

“We are very much supportive of the family – the biblical definition of the family. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business and we are married to our first wives.”
                                                             – Chick-fil-A President-Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy

A few years ago, I was thrilled to partake of a new restaurant that served Italian beef and was adorned with Chicago sports merchandise throughout. It was heavenly. And I suspect because the owner of the restaurant was looking to those heavens on Sunday rather than keeping his store open to Chicago Bears fans who like football and Italian beef that day most of all, his great store closed down soon thereafter. His beliefs were admirable and what he was freely entitled to, but it also sabotaged the big picture of his brand and what his audience wanted.

I’m disappointed in Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy for this very reason.

Thanks to what he told Baptist Press in an interview, he’s turned where I eat chicken into a statement on whether or not I support gay marriage. If that sounds ridiculous or an overreaction, go to Chick-fil-A’s Facebook page and see the comments for yourself. It’s a full-on discussion of the pros and cons of gay marriage.

Considering the reaction some of my friends had to Mr. Cathy’s public support of traditional marriage, it’s certainly harder for me to a public advocate for that brand on Facebook or elsewhere. Regardless of my stance on the issue.

And that’s too bad. Because from a product standpoint, I love Chick-fil-A. I love their sandwiches, I love their shakes, I love their fries and because I’m 5 lbs. overweight, I probably love it all a little too much.

But now, we can’t have a discussion about a really great product with really great people working there, can we? We have to have a discussion about what eating a damn chicken sandwich means for what we believe politically or religiously.

I’d like a Common Sense Meal, please.

So indulge me enough so we can suspend debate of that political issue for a moment and think about this. Maybe I shouldn’t shop at Whole Foods because I don’t agree with John Mackey’s position on the health care debate. Maybe I shouldn’t be a Cubs fan because a member of Ricketts family wanted to run a vicious anti-Obama ad. Maybe the CEO of Macy’s says something tomorrow in conflict with my beliefs…do I avoid the next 50% Off Sale?

Maybe some actually will and do in these circumstances. That’s their right and I respect that decision.

But also respect that I’m still going to go to Cubs games. I’m still going to shop where I want to shop. I’m still going to eat where I want to eat. And I’m not the one in the wrong for doing so.

When the customer/brand advocate has to be moved from defending the brand’s product or service to an uncomfortable position of defending the CEO’s beliefs, I don’t place blame on the customer. I place blame and full responsibility on the executive for putting them in that potentially difficult position at all.

Yes, they are entitled to their beliefs. It is their American right. Whether or not it actually is right.

BUT just because something is covered by freedom of speech doesn’t make it a good idea for the brand. Not by a longshot.

The conversation shouldn’t be about Christianity or gay marriage or traditional marriage or Southern Baptists.

The conversation should be about the fact that people love to camp out before a Chick-fil-A store’s grand opening. It should be about the fact that people love those cow mascots of theirs so much that they’ll clamor for a cow calendar. It should be about a product that is fantastic in my book, not The Book.

Sometimes the conversation has been about the fact that the chain is closed on Sundays and what that means, but it hasn’t really been a major dividing line.

This is where the “If you don’t like it, don’t eat there” argument is too easy. I love the product. But what if I just think its chief executive has the wrong opinion? Why can’t I have both? Are we really that stupid that we can’t distinguish the difference?

But I’m not going to suggest that Chick-fil-A should be left off the hook either. What I’m talking about is evolution. No, not “Evolution,” but brand evolution. As in taking a hard look and realizing expansion demands adjustment to new demographic audiences and adjustment to new times. When the city of Boston declares it’s not going to allow the company to open franchises there, that should be a signal that a re-evaluation may be in order. Truett Cathy founded Chick-fil-A in a Georgia suburb in 1946. Well, it’s not 1946 and the brand isn’t just in Georgia anymore.

Brands and the values that go with them should be allowed to naturally evolve as they expand, especially as they enter more cosmopolitan and diverse areas rather than rural ones. 12 years ago, the closest Chick-fil-A from me was three hours away in downstate Bloomington, Illinois. Today, it’s steps from Michigan Avenue and less than 3 miles from the most predominantly gay neighborhood in Chicago.

The next move should be an apology from Dan Cathy, but not for the reason you may think. It should be because of the fact that he made himself the story when he’s not and shouldn’t be. He should issue a statement personally that sounds like so:

“My political and religious beliefs are my own and not a reflection of Chick-fil-A’s company policy, which aims to be inclusive to all sexual orientations. I apologize to every employee who serves our brand and every customer who consumes our brand, who may have been offended by my recent statements. I take responsibility for putting you in a potentially difficult and uncomfortable position of defending beliefs you may not share.”  

I don’t want religion and politics brought into where I eat chicken. The guy who makes that chicken should get that too. For the good for the brand, at the very least.

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4 thoughts on “This chicken sandwich doesn’t reflect my political views OR When Personal Beliefs and Brands Don’t Mix.

  1. AWESOME post, Dan! This is such a touchy subject and for the past few days my Facebook newsfeed has been blowing up with people either fully supporting Chick-fil-A or others explaining why we need to boycott it. It’s almost overpowering the political statuses…. almost 😉

    You hit the nail on the head perfectly with your statement about the brand’s evolution, “Truett Cathy founded Chick-fil-A in a Georgia suburb in 1946. Well, it’s not 1946 and the brand isn’t just in Georgia anymore.” If companies want to expand into new markets, that’s great. But you can’t expect every market in the world to have the exact same values and beliefs as you. That’s just not realistic.

    Thank you for writing this, Dan. You did a great job at not pointing fingers and not choosing sides.

    • Thanks Amy. I appreciate that because that’s exactly what I was going for. It will be interesting to see how Chick-fil-A’s historical beliefs continues to mesh with where the brand wants to go in the future. People can wrap themselves in the freedom of speech talk all they want in regard to Cathy’s statements. The reality is that these statements literally run contrary to the Chick-fil-A stated company policy. That’s brand inconsistency, plain and simple. And not helping a brand that I assume is interested in further expansion (which certainly isn’t happening in Boston).

      I believe the conversation about gay marriage is worth having, for sure. I just don’t believe in having it in a fast food restaurant or some politician speaking for me to suggest that my consumption of Chick-fil-A means I support Dan Cathy’s points of view. Absolutely not. As Americans, we need to be more intelligent than falling for that kind of foolish spin. No matter where we stand on that issue, we’re better than that.

  2. There are some things that transcends brand. There is a higher authority, called God and the Bible, which many believe is the original brand.
    And, frankly it’s time that the silent majority speak up.
    In a normal interview, Chick-fil-A President-Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy re-iterated one of the company’s core values/beliefs. No surprise there since the information had been well known and communicated. He was asked a question and he had every right to answer the question honestly and truthfully.
    So, he was not politically correct.
    Personally, I’m sick of politically correctness run amok. Why can the minority make any outrageous statement they want under freedom of speech and one individual is criticized for speaking out core values that represent most people in this country? Mayors Menino (Boston) and Emanuel (Chicago) came out with comments, making a decision for those in their cities. “Chick-Fil-A values are not Chicago values”. Really?
    The time has come when we draw a line in the sand.
    No longer will we set down our constitutional responsibilities. No longer should we be afraid to speak up.
    No longer should be intimidated to express our values that have been the basis of our society for thousands of years. Fact is, if this country is to survive we must have a strong family unit.
    I don’t eat Chick-fil-A, but will tell you that today I will be going there with my family and friends in support of their having clearly defined values !
    No, Mr. Cathy did not turn” where I eat chicken into a statement on whether or not I support gay marriage”. This is not an element of their brand. This is a company that closes on Sundays, the day God set aside for rest. They stand for Christian values.
    We have a mighty God and who knows this may be the best marketing campaign yet. The lines in Florida to the local Chick-fil-A are a block long. How refreshing, the silent majority is taking a stand in support of Chick-fil-A!

    Also disagree that “Dan Cathy doesn’t have to apologize for what he believes, but he should issue an apology to his loyal customer base for putting them in an awkward, uncomfortable place where it’s harder to be an advocate for the brand than it was before.” Early this year, I had the opportunity to work with two of their franchisees, here’s what I found out. People go there for their chicken. (they genuinely believe it’s a healthy, fast food alternative) Any, many of them had no understanding of the company’s core beliefs. Again, they came for the chicken. In both instances a surprising number of people where well familiar with the manager and owners, because of these individuals involvement in the community. (another core belief for the franchisers – the need to give back, etc.) It will be interesting to see in the months ahead the results of this situation. As I said, we have a mighty God and I suspect he may surprise us all!

    • Sonia,
      I appreciate your point of view but we’re going to disagree big-time on this unless you can separate your Biblical commentary on gay marriage from what is in the best interests of brand strategy. They are two separate issues entirely. There’s nothing about eating at Chick-fil-A that has anything to do with being for or against gay marriage and has nothing to do with being more or less of a religious person by eating there. If you think about that for a moment, that does not support one side or another. I just want to eat a chicken sandwich without anybody assuming what I believe on the issue because I didn’t ask you to do that for me and anyone who has that assumption about people who eat at Chick-fil-A is dumbing down their own cause.

      The shame of it all is that I can tell you and I both have loved this brand. We’ve been advocates for this brand based on its quality, the experience we feel when we walk into the place and, although I wouldn’t personally camp out before a store’s grand opening, I totally get and admire why someone would do that. Few brands have it so good.

      So why are two apparent brand advocates so sharply divided? Because the leader of this company has done that. Whether you agree with his view or disagree with his view is not the part of my argument. The fact you can NOT dispute is this – we are having this very debate right now and across America because a C-level executive at Chick-fil-A made his personal beliefs bigger than the Chick-fil-A brand.

      He is not. And that’s why he’s in the wrong.

      Not because of the 1st Amendment. Don’t wrap your argument up in that and call it day like others have. That’s lazy and it doesn’t entitle a manager to say whatever they want without thinking about the impact to the brand. When you look at what is happening in terms of perception of this brand since Dan Cathy’s comments, it is NOT bringing people together. It is bringing groups together in the wrong way and against each other. Is that really what Chick-fil-A should be known for? I don’t think so.

      And that’s too bad because the Chick-fil-A store experience is a happy one for me and always has been. A brand with good employees who probably didn’t deserve to suddenly think about their role in all this. I look forward to eating there. Free of judgment from any political or religious group, of course.

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