What Chick-fil-A can teach us about service, branding and corporate culture

This is NOT going to go political. “Good luck with that,” I know you’re thinking.*

An exercise in keywording

I’m attempting to 1) newsjack a trending topic and 2) win at the SEO buzzword bingo.

Yes it’s important to think about keywords. Of course, we all need readers for our blogs – the right ones. Beyond that, is all traffic good – or is it traffic for traffic’s sake?

Like Dan Perez, I get eyeroll strain at the tenuous-at-best connects some writers take to connect the buzz-of-the-moment to some perfunctory post on social media or public relations. Ahem, now for my turn to make this more than shameless linkbait crap.

The Scenario: If you’re reading this, odds are you’ve returned from your vacation on Bora Bora or Jupiter long enough to hear that Chick-fil-A has PR issues. Not going to rehash them – it goes into things religious and political and all manner of subjects this shy, Southern girl does not discuss in polite company.

someecards.com - Deciding what to eat for lunch was already hard enough without worrying about my sandwich being homophobic.

FWIW one of the best posts I’ve read has been Rachel Evans talking to Christians on both sides of the Chick-fil-A issue.

A different perspective

The other night night on Facebook, a fan post on Chick-fil-A’s wall caught my eye. (Apologies, I CANNOT find the link. My total bad.)

A woman was thanking the company for making her husband’s ‘welcome back’ lunch special. He had recently returned from Iraq and the manager made it patriotic – and picked up the tab. IIRC, there was nothing about the current debate. At the time, it already had more than 23,000 comments.

Skipping past the politics, think of all the things a brand must do right: Community. Value. Engagement. Loyalty. Such an outpouring of support.

As I scanned a few comments, one simply read: “It’s not a great company [or brand] did this; that was a great manager.” Or probably the franchise owner. Lightbulb.

Culture means Business

Brands are made of the actions of their employees; are employees (or franchisees) responsible, accountable for everything the brand does? After the BP oil spill, I remember more than a few stories of local BP-owners asking their community not to boycott, reminding them that they are their friends and neighbors – and shouldn’t be punished for what BP did.

Great managers make for better brands. Strong brands make good managers even better. And companies that have strong sense of leadership, of service and value, develop cultures that mean better businesses.

To wit a New Hampshire Chick-fil-A is sponsoring a gay pride festival – thanks to its franchise owner. (h/t Judy Gombita) I don’t know if other franchisees can do the same – or if corporate will push back. But it’s a sign of strong culture that lets leaders lead – their own way.

Time will tell

Not so long ago I wrote that “Chick-fil-A is the Disney of fast food.”

I don’t know when or how this furor will die down for Chick-fil-A. I do know that while they’ve made mistakes, they’ve also done things very right – good product and excellent service have build great fan loyalty. And because they have strong leaders throughout the organization, because they want their franchise owners to be the best, the CFA brand will probably stay strong.

*Comment time. Any definitions of marriage or political rants on hate speech, leave ’em elsewhere or they’ll be deleted. If you have observations on how Chick-fil-A has been managing this from a PR or social media perspective, do share.

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12 thoughts on “What Chick-fil-A can teach us about service, branding and corporate culture

  1. Davina, I disagree only with the idea that there’s something Chick-fil-A needs to “fix.” They may not be the biggest fast food chain, but I’m not sure any others are more successful.

    And this latest controversy? It’s probably not what Dan Cathy intended. But it’s raised his company to the level of folk heroes among a huge portion of the population. Some “brands” were hurt in this episodes, but not Chick-fil-A. (Cough, cough, Rahm, cough, cough.)

    You make an excellent point about great managers. Chick-fil-A doesn’t have franchise owners, in the normal sense. They license “operators” who invest as little as $5,000. CFA is very careful to select operators — from a long waiting list — who are capable of building a community (the way you’d select a social media director). The $5000 threshold makes a lot of good people eligible, who could never dream of a McDs or a BK. A lot CFA operators are former teachers, insurance people and so on. They pledge to make CFA their full-time job and work hands-on at the shop. So a jerk with million bucks can’t buy his way into CFA.

    It’s a great system for building the culture you write about.
    Barrett Rossie recently posted..Does It Really Matter What You, Or Anyone, Thinks Of Chick-fil-A?

    1. I don’t think they’ll be particularly hurt by this in the long run and also not sure what they need to ‘fix.’ All the official statements seem to be getting them nowhere, they’re not going to reverse course. Probably best to move on.

      The franchise/operator model – It’s certainly one of their unique selling points Barrett. If you want a CFA, you better be prepared to roll up your sleeves and WORK. Does make for a strong culture and given its success, surprises me more companies don’t try that approach. FWIW.

  2. Very nice post Davina

    So many lessons here. One thing I have seen is that it is easy for Corporate HQ to take actions that can hurt their franchises or workers (not specific to Chick-Fila). The problem with this is the franchises that excel have to work even harder now. Like before this event the N.H. franchise probably didn’t feel a need to be involved with gay pride but realized the community they serve find it a big issue.

    Just like the Auto Dealerships don’t make the cars they sell. So when a recall is serious like Toyota had it impacted their independently owned dealer network.

    Makes me think that upper management has to be more careful looking after the welfare of their business, employees, and whoever has ownership stakes.

    1. Good example w/ the car dealers and recall Howie; I think sometimes brands have had to step up on behalf of the local owners/reps – rebates, expanded marketing – to make up for those losses. In this case, as seemingly people have stepped up support to counter the backlash, I wonder – when the dust settles – how much this will have hurt the local CFA franchisee? And will we ever read of it?

      I have worked with franchisors before – and have thought that one thing perhaps CFA could do: scale back its oversight a bit, allow more direct input from the franchise system in terms of its political and charitable contributions. Make it less about one person’s opinions, more about the company’s as a whole. Now of course it could backfire if fewer franchisees are like the one in NH. By not doing that, it’s keeping the story at ‘one man’s personal opinions’ – which may be the strategy. Again, I just don’t know. FWIW.

  3. For whatever reason, I have never been a Chick-fil-A fan. If I’m in the mood for chicken I like to visit those heathens over at KFC; of course, it’s got the ‘secret’ recipe and all….:).

    If anyone knows the Chick-fil-A story, they should have not been surprised or shocked by the owner’s statements. Those are his beliefs and he tries to instill that through his business model.

    Good or bad, he’s certainly doing something right. Hopefully, he walks the walk however and truly practices what he preaches and gives back to the less fortunate instead of laughing all the way to the bank.
    Bill Dorman recently posted..The potential to rock socks

    1. I’ll eat Zaxby’s, Popeye’s too if I’ve got a hankering – but sometimes CFA just works. As to the rest – and already knowing a little of what they’re about – this does give me pause to eat there, to support this organization. But enough to full-out boycott? IDK. Reminds me of other political hot potatoes when a single issue overshadows all the other good. In the case of CFA, the strength of their quality, value, brand I think will carry them through for most of their customers. FWIW.

  4. Great points Davina…and balanced, something that seems to have lost its way in this whole CFA episode.

    Fact is, they create the best fast food experience I’ve ever seen. They love everyone that comes through the doors in their CFA way.

    Saying they’re the “Disney” of their industry has nothing to do with political moral affiliations, it’s just the truth.

    And my gut tells me it is for this reason they’ll only continue to churn huge profits despite only having 6 days a week to make it happen.

    Marcus Sheridan-The Sales Lion recently posted..Why McDonald’s has the Biggest Social Media Cojones Ever

    1. Marcus, you notice a difference – the training and personality of their employees, the extra steps they take. I know more than a few times, after a not-at-all long wait for an order I’ve gotten a coupon for a freebie as an apology for the wait. Now it’s smart marketing – usually for a new menu item they’re promoting – but it’s also just good service. Here in Atlanta, it other chains seemed to have raised their bar b/c of it.

      I still don’t know how to fix their current situation. FWIW I haven’t been to one in a while, and I don’t know how I’ll feel when I inevitably give in to my craving for chicken minis. I think my rationalization (as hinted at here) is that I’m supporting hard-working local business, not corporate? We’ll see.

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