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Chick-fil-A: Will the controversy hurt chain's expansion plans?

Chick-fil-A used to be known for chicken sandwiches and waffle fries. Now, say marketing and branding experts, it will be known for the COO's comments on gay marriage. For how long is the question.

By Staff writer / August 3, 2012

Gay rights activists hold signs during a nationwide 'kiss-in' and protest at a Chick-Fil-A restaurant in Decatur, Ga., Friday, as a public protest to Chick-fil-A executive Dan Cathy, who was quoted as supporting the traditional family unit. About two dozen protesters gathered to voice their views.

Tami Chappell/Reuters

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CHICAGO

Weeks after fast food chain Chick-fil-A suddenly found itself in the middle of a national shouting match involving gay marriage and the First Amendment, the company now finds itself facing risks to its expansion plans and its overall brand.

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The Atlanta-based chain isn’t the first company to find itself in a tight spot due to politics. Unlike other corporate flaps, however, this one could endure long past the summer, hurting expansion or even staffing, marketing and branding experts say.

“It opened a Pandora’s box,” says Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a marketing professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. “Chick-fil-A is going to be linked to this issue for quite some time. It’s not a sandwich anymore, it’s a sandwich with political associations.” 

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The latest round in this fight was slated to come Friday, when gay-rights activists planned to hold “kiss-ins” at restaurant locations around the country.

The controversy started last month with comments by company president and COO Dan Cathy, suggesting that he opposed gay marriage. 

Once the comments went viral, an alliance of mayors in places like Boston and San Francisco issued defiant statements saying the restaurants were not welcome in their backyard. Those statements in turn ignited a firestorm of activism that crossed political boundaries, with religious leaders and stars of both political parties arguing for First Amendment rights 

The clash intensified Wednesday when supporters, including former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, organized “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” which resulted in long lines outside chain locations and derision from opponents, both online and onsite.

While the company insisted Mr. Cathy’s comments did not contradict the company’s tradition “to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect – regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender,” it soon became clear the company had become a lightning rod for one of the most polarizing issues of the day.

Chick-fil-A is known for its chicken-filet-on-a-white bun sandwiches. It also however made a name promoting Christian principles in its charity work through separate company foundations that sponsor marriage retreats for couples in crisis or conduct overseas mission work. The company also maintains a long-standing policy of staying closed Sundays, both its corporate offices and all of its more than 1,600 franchises.

The Christian component of Chick-fil-A’s foundation work has “always been part of that company’s culture,” says Eric Giandelone, director of food service research at Mintel International, a market research firm based in Chicago. “It’s never been anything they’ve used to drive up business. It’s something they’ve done because they’re sincere about it.”

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