Why the Chick-fil-A Brand Won't Suffer
The CEO of Chick-fil-A reportedly said on a syndicated radio show, “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.’” The quote and other statements about gay marriage resulted in a firestorm of criticism including statements from several major city mayors saying that his firm and its opinions were not welcome. However, the belief that this controversy will hurt the company and its brand is, in my view, misguided.
The generally accepted hypothesis is that a brand should avoid controversy, because it will alienate a portion of its customer base. So the best course is to remain agnostic with respect to any controversial issues, at least visibly. Following this logic, the Chick-fil-A position was therefore at the intersection of a smaller brand mistake and a larger brand blunder with lasting implications.
This hypothesis is probably true for brands such as Coca-Cola or Walmart that have a broader base. But in my view it is not true for a charismatic brand that has a deep connection with a segment that is the core of its market, especially when the controversy alienates other segments and reinforces the connection to the core.
Chick-fil-A is such a brand. It has a special, intense relationship with the evangelical Christian community in the south where the bulk of its outlets are located. This community shares common beliefs, interests, activities and values with the brand. The connection is manifested in part by the firm’s closure on Sundays, by the use of bible verses on the packaging, and by its rather visible corporate mission and heritage. There is a relationship that supports but goes beyond affinity for the menu. When someone attacks the Chick-fil-A brand, to this segment it’s like someone attacking a family member. The reaction is to make the relationship and brand loyalty even more visible and passionate. It also gives the brand energy, an important ingredient to a charismatic brand that is not easy to stimulate.
Besides the core Christian segment, there is a large segment that could care less about the controversy. They just want the food and experience that they believe is superior and that they have grown used to. So in the short and long run, this controversy, if anything, has little downside and a meaningful upside for Chick-fil-A.
I was once on a panel with Nike’s Phil Knight. It was during a time that Nike was running some edgy ads that offended some, including a group of influential media spokespeople that created a lot of press controversy. I will never forget how Knight simply dismissed the attackers, saying that the role of brand building is to increase the connection with the core base and if there are some who are not in that group that don’t like the ads, it simply doesn’t matter.
Brand building can’t be restricted to programs that don’t offend anyone. In fact, effective programs for charismatic brands are more likely than not going to be annoying or offensive to the non-target market.
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