Chick-fil-A has a significant and growing branding problem.
The company has long been grounded in religious beliefs. It is owned by a Baptist family and embraces traditional ideals. The company donates to conservative causes. The restaurants are closed on Sunday.
Recently, however, Dan Cathy, the company’s president, gave a series of interviews where he strongly opposed same-sex marriage. In a radio interview, for example, he said “As it relates to society in general, 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 interviews have led to a rather significant backlash, with people attacking the company for its beliefs. People protested in LA at a Chick-fil-A location. A Chicago alderman announced that he would prevent Chick-fil-A from opening in his ward.
In response to the attacks on Chick-fil-A conservative leaders have rallied to the brand’s defense. Mike Huckabee decided to call August 1 Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. Rick Santorum is tweeting from Chick-fil-A locations.
The entire issue is generating a massive amount of publicity and attention.
The controversy is becoming a huge problem for Chick-fil-A. The core issue is that the brand is quickly getting associated with a particular issue. This will have an impact on business, as some people decide not to visit the chain. But it goes far beyond this; it could make it difficult for Chick-fil-A to recruit employees, open new locations and secure promotional partners. Chick-fil-A is a private company, which gives it a bit more flexibility, but the risk remains.
What should Chick-fil-A do now?
This is a very difficult question. The company can’t just announce that it has changed its position on the matter; this would be insincere and would cause a backlash among its supporters. Continuing to promote its point of view will just fuel the controversy. Saying nothing, its current approach, seems weak.
My sense is Chick-fil-A needs to respond to the situation. First, however, the company leaders need to make a choice: stand by its beliefs despite the business impact or draw a line between the beliefs of its owners and the value of the brand?