The Chick-Fil-A Way: Why Brands Should Have Stronger Opinions

There's more to that recent crispy controversy than you might think. Take a deep breath—and then take a public position.

Chick-fil-A, a Georgia-based fast food chain specializing in chicken sandwiches recently entered a highly exclusive, and not always savory, league of brands—that is, brands with opinions. It happened, as you may have heard, courtesy of COO Dan Cathy, the son of S. Truett Cathy, a devout Southern Baptist who began the company in 1961. The owners of Chick-fil-A had long been supporters of Christian family values, and active sponsors of organizations and conferences dedicated to preserving what some call the institution of marriage.

However, when Dan Cathy went on the radio speaking of "God’s judgement" raining down on those who "advocate same-sex marriage," the heated (sizzling, crispy, etc.) debate that ensued raised Chick-fil-A’s profile on both a national and international level. While I firmly oppose the Cathy family’s views, as a branding man I can’t help but admire the (likely unintended) value of the misadventure. Up until a few weeks ago, I, for one, had never heard of Chick-fil-A. I’m sure I’m not alone.

It's been a while since the glory days of brands with opinions. The once-famous liberal bent of Ben & Jerry’s has softened. Sure, we’ve seen attempts by the companies such as Diesel, who trumpeted fairly innocuous opinions, but the truth of the matter is the world of brands has become oh-so-Corporate, with a capital C. And when brands do wade into the choppy editorializing seas these days, the results are often sloppy—see also: Cole, Kenneth.

The past decade has, in fact, seen a systematic depletion of courage in business in the United States. Every major corporation has come to fear shareholder backlash. In this world of increased job insecurity, there’s an even greater fear of igniting the ire of an aggressive writer somewhere in the back lots of the blogosphere. Companies now shy away from igniting any storm that may lead to a lawsuit. The reality is that they’ve become petrified of causing any kind of conflict, and so they opt for the safer middle of the road.

But isn’t the time ripe for a game change? It wasn’t that long ago when CNN was the leading global news channel, and then in 1986 FOX entered the arena. The world of news has never been the same since. Objective views have been replaced with subjective opinions. It seems we can’t get enough of it, and those leading the ratings race seldom allow facts to get in the way of a good story. We see this everywhere, from Howard Stern to The Simpsons to the endless number of subjective opinions pouring out of blogs on every single subject.

Then we have brands. Most are working overtime to be everything to everybody, and the only commitment they’re prepared to make is when they dare to share an opinion about one of their own. Think Coke Zero in preference to Coke, or Oracle’s latest $10 million offer to IBM to see if it can out-perform them. As for real opinions, the kind that shape our world and challenge our beliefs, well, they’re nowhere to be found.

As one who is quick with his own opinion, I believe that you can’t be friends with everyone, and the day that you try, you are doomed. Of course there will always be exceptions, but these are mostly to be found in smaller companies with less to lose. And, yes, the bigger the company, the higher the risk, and the greater likelihood they’ll travel along tried and trusted paths. But what of the rest? Why are they choosing to stay in the middle of the road? Opinions are such that they can divide and unite at the same time, and perhaps for this very reason we are still talking about Pepsi Vs. Coke some 15 years after the ads aired.

The time has come to bring back opinionated brands. Ben & Jerry’s political positions were not manufactured in their marketing department or on their advertising agency’s drawing board. It was a real expression of values when they chose to rename their Chubby Hubby, Hubby Hubby in celebration of Vermont legalizing same-sex marriage. They even went so far to feature a cartoon image of two men marrying beneath a rainbow. Their choice in the 2008 presidential election was celebrated with the flavor Yes Pecan, echoing President Barack Obama’s "Yes, we can!" slogan. Hell, the company founders were once even arrested outside the Sudanese Embassy after protesting the horrors happening in Darfur. Ben & Jerry’s is a rare brand, indeed. Though to a lesser extent, the company continued pursuing controversial issues even after it been taken over by Unilever, the multinational food corporation.

Today, brands should take a cue from rock stars, many of whom are unafraid to speak out for causes they believe in. Lady Gaga has supported the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; Annie Lennox and Elton John began fighting for AIDS sufferers in the days when people were afraid to even whisper the word. Of course, corporate culture is vastly different from rock culture, but as the growing number of socially considerate businesses indicates, there is a place where politics and profits can happily mingle.

The choice of instant feedback channels seems to have scared CEOs into submission. Previously the worst that could happen was a bit of bad press and a few outraged letters dumped in the mailbox. These days, everyone can vent their indignation and rage on Twitter. This is precisely the problem. It’s the reason why negative opinions in the world of branding cut deeper than ever before. The consequences are immediate, and they hit with a forcefulness that can leave even the most resistant members of senior management feeling kneecapped.

We now live in a world led by Wow! Pow! Ciao! Our attention is captured by the immediate. Our reaction is passionate, and sometimes ferocious. And just as soon as we’ve let off steam, we give it away. In this new reality, senior management needs to become more mindful of the process and grow a thicker skin in order to share their opinion and stand for something in the world. There’s risk involved, to be sure, however there’s an even bigger risk involved in taking the middle road—not least of which is the heavy traffic already clogging the space.

[Image: Flickr user Elvert Barnes]

Read more by Lindstrom: How To Be Happy Anywhere

Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine's "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of [i]Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best–seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, was published last year. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best-sellers translated into 30 languages. More at martinlindstrom.com.[/i]

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13 Comments

  • J. Vette

    Seriously? Are we THAT lost in rhetoric that we are now praising the use of homophobia as a branding tactic? Sure it's branding 101, but I can't believe it was intentional, and frankly it's just .. wrong. Where do we draw the line?    I might be able to agree somewhat with Mr. Lindstrom IF the point had been that
    "opinions in corporate branding" should have something remotely to do
    with the product itself. But last time i checked chicken sandwiches were not the official sandwich of the religious zealot segment?

    The story i would have hoped Fast Company might have published was that
    professionalism has it's place, and when corporations start trying to
    play social politics, they overstep the bounds of professionalism and
    away from any relevance to their product. Not to mention that in this
    case, at least 10-12% of the population (many of whom might enjoy a good
    chicken sandwich) stands to be even more threatened than they already
    are by 1 rich homophobe with a microphone in his face. From a business perspective, Dan Cathy had the opportunity to brand to
    a much larger audience by staying out of politics. I do not buy that this will help their business in the long run. Though time will tell. The
    article should also be asking - what IS free speech, who should it protect, and how far should
    corporate branding be allowed to go? Whose rights are truly threatened
    here? And indeed are we actually threatening the foundation of free
    speech itself by treating corporations as individuals? In my opinion the Dan Cathy debacle is a complete insult and maybe even a threat to the true spirit of free speech,
    which should exist to protect the little guy. Otherwise what's next? What's the slippery slope here?

  • empty13

    I completely agree with your sentiment around how instant feedback is scaring the C-suite and brands more generally into bland, middle-of-the-road, "safe" opinions. Ben & Jerry's is obviously the poster child for opinionated brands not afraid to speak out on controversial topics. Indeed, many companies can get away with being inflammatory and a little bit risque when they are small enough that the resulting publicity will be a asset rather than a headache (see Steve Jobs' comments about Microsoft back in the 1980s).

    However I wonder if larger brands can afford to be so controversial in this new "always-on" society? Surely a carefully designed creative plan is needed before launching into a campaign that is, by design, going to ruffle feathers? On the other hand, with so much competition, perhaps brands need to employ ever more extreme methods to get themselves noticed?

    Interestingly, we've been debating what brands are going to do in 2013 on www.empty13.com because (in the UK at least) there is nothing going on next year for brands and the creative industries to latch onto. There's no Royal Jubilee, no Euro football competition, and no Olympics. I wonder if this means brands are going to have to go back to their roots and become truly creative again. Perhaps we'll see an uplift in the amount of controversies, similar to the Chick-fil-A debacle, as organisations look to rustle up dialogue about their brand....

  • If anything then CFA is doomed

    "As one who is quick with his own opinion, I believe that you can’t be
    friends with everyone, and the day that you try, you are doomed."

    That doesn't seem like a valid argument. I mean, it's certainly true what you say, but in what way does this relate to selling chicken sandwiches? That Coca-Cola is doomed because it... it doesn't even try to be friends or enemy with anyone. Businesses don't need to make friends, they need to sell and there are many businesses that are not doomed despite that they're appealing to almost everyone... worldwide.

  • Elaine Fogel

    Martin, I respectfully disagree. It's one thing for personal brands like celebrities to take a stand. They only represent themselves as individuals. When company brands start to voice their leaders' opinions on politics, religion, and the like, they run the risk of alienating a lot of customers, prospects, and their own employees. 

    Just because Dan Cathy has a bias on a controversial subject, doesn't mean that every Chick-fil-A employee shares his views. That can create a bit of angst among the troops. And, that cannot be good for business.If every company took this action, yes, it would be bold, but it would also divide us even more in terms of our belief systems. God knows we have enough division in our politics that transcends to our friendships and daily lives. If this becomes ubiquitous, we'll now have to keep lists of companies whose leaders' opinions we support so we can patronize their businesses. Even though we do some of that now, adding more fuel to the fire is not a pretty picture in my mind. 

    The only exception, in my opinion, is when they support charitable causes.

  • Teisha Collins

    I am very excited I came across your article because I
    recently crafted a blog
    post which took up a similar topic involving the Chick-Fil-A brand. I offered
    an analogy suggesting that Chick-Fil-A is like a high school grad brand, while
    those brands like RadioShack (that you describe as taking amiddle-of-the-road)
    position equate “high schooler” brands. Chick-Fil-A, while controversial in its
    positioning in same-sex marriage, is a great example of a brand sturdy in the
    foundation of its brand identity. It has surpassed the “fitting-in” days of
    high school, and has owned who it is, despite what others think of it. RadioShack,
    on the other hand, is still a high schooler brand because it teeters in its
    identity, wanting to appease two distinct audiences (those who remember it as a
    radio retailer legacy, and those who now see it as a retailer symbolizing the
    generation of new technology). Unlike Chick-Fil-A, RadioShack is weak in its
    brand messaging/principles/values because it fails to be strong and take a firm
    positioning in brand messaging. I realize your article is arguing for brands to
    be opinionated when it comes to pop culture issues, but my opinion is that for
    brands to have an opinion about what is going on in the world, they must first
    have a steadfast, cemented opinion about what it stands for, and who its
    audience is.

  • What the world needs now.....

    The difference that I see between , for example, CFA and stars like Gaga, Elton, and Lennox is that the latter group is promoting equality not promoting hate against a select group.  They work to improve the conditions of mankind, not pass judgement on others.

  • Donjonesmd

    We need to learn how to have civil conversations - just because someone does not agree with my views or opinions does not mean that they hate me. Yes, there are those who speak with hate on both sides of the issue. 

  • Marguerite Inscoe

    The purpose of branding is to appeal to a target market, not everyone. That means turning some people off. Chick-Fil-A lost some customers and gained others (along with tons of free PR)  through this incident. I think it's brilliant strategy, though unintended in this case.

  • Strategy includes intent

    Your conclusion is wrong. To appeal to a target market doesn't mean to turn the wrong audience off, it means to turn the right audience on.

    I despise their actions, because I oppose that people capitalize on popular negative sentiments. But in the long run this won't work out anyway.

  • Adrienne Szewczyk

    I agree more brands should stand for something, rather than ignoring or being silent on everything. 

    Though Cathy alienated many people by asserting he supports traditional marriage, Chick-Fil-A saw a surge of business from likeminded citizens. Many people view how they spend their money as a testament to their beliefs, and if more organizations stood for something, they'd see similar responses. Good or bad, no one can deny the PR surge.

    In my opinion, the views of musicians and celebrities get a little too much coverage. Generally speaking, they are one of the least educated populations with one of the biggest platforms. That is an unfortunate combination.

  • Neuromarketing

    I agree that brands and businesses are increasingly afraid to take a stand on any but the most innocuous issues.  I wonder if it is the increasing power of social media that exacerbates this?  Irritate a few people today, and it can go viral...

  • Trailboss96

    I like how they said what some people call marriage. That's what the majority of people have called it for all time. Is that a man or a woman in the picture? Why did I even waste my time reading this article?