Will Patrons Vote With Their Wallet? Chick-fil-A In Crisis

Fast food restaurants have long been the center of marketing best and worst practice discussions. They have been the center of healthy eating debates. They have even been the focal point of discussions about job training programs. Yet I never expected a fast food chicken restaurant to be the center of a heated debate about freedom of speech and marriage.  Regardless of my personal views about the political issues at hand, I find the recent coverage of Chick-Fil-A an interesting public relations case study.
Your people, are your brand – For better or for worse your people are your brand. The recent protests have derived not from something that the restaurant has done. They have refused no one service. They haven’t changed their menu. They haven’t closed any locations as protest. Rather, the protests have loomed because of the actions and words of the family owners.
Connectors really do wield power – For many years authors such as Malcolm Gladwell have been writing about “connectors” who initiate a surge in action. A single person who initiates a domino effect with wide implications. That’s exactly what happened here. Chick-Fil-A didn’t recently start believing in traditional marriage. Instead, a “connector” initiated the domino effect with a tweet based upon a recent event they experienced. This alone could have gone largely unnoticed except it triggered two other big events. Jim Henson Industries pulling their toys from kids meals and Mayor Menino of a well-known liberal community going on record in protest. These three connectors were critical to the story unfolding nationally.
Transparency – This privately owned company has always had personal roots in religious beliefs expressed in their chain locations. They are the only fast food chain that closes on Sunday in open homage to the church. Similarly, when the public protests began Chick-Fil-A they did not hide behind silence or apologize for their actions. They simply confirmed their conviction. Right or wrong, they are transparent in their actions giving patrons a clear choice.
Buyers Vote With Their Wallet – Fast food is a highly competitive market. Individuals “vote” their support or frustrations with their wallets, and in this case their protest signs. A would be patron walking by Chick-Fil-A with their children in tow has to decide “is this chicken worth walking through a picket line?” These recent debates will test customer loyalty in ways we can’t even begin to measure even long after the protest signs are gone.
All Press Is Not Good Press – Some old school PR principles used to believe that all press was good press. The fact that Chick-Fil-A was in the news, even if under protest, was free publicity. I’ve never believed that to be true, and now more than ever. A small protest in one store is tweeted, facebooked and delivered to millions of mobile devices in an instant. The overwhelming result has not been support, but visible frustration.
Will Chick-Fil-A suffer a significant financial loss in the end? The analyst are mixed in their views and as I see it, it is anyones’ guess. As an American company they have the right to voice their convictions; they have broken no laws. And if the likes of Toyota could rebound from the largest recall in my life, the outcome has most certainly not been written. But regardless of the outcome, Chick-Fil-A has just reminded us of some pretty important PR principles.
  • Know your connectors
  • Be transparent
  • Your people are your brand
  • There is such a thing as bad press


  1. ” Food for thought”…an insightful perspective.