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Chick-fil-A UK shutdown: A bellwether for brands?

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Chick-fil-A is on the verge of closing their only English outlet following protests from LGBTQ+ campaigners. Consultants should take note, reports Thomas Lawrence

With over 2,400 restaurants in the US alone, Chick-fil-A is one of the world’s biggest fast food brands. Their attempt to break into the UK market, however, has hit trouble; its pioneering restaurant, based in Reading, is set to close following a series of protests by the local Pride group.

As in its American homeland, it’s the chain’s record of donating to organisations opposing same-sex marriage that has landed it in hot oil. Examples include Exodus International (which offered gay “conversion therapy” before shutting amid apologies for its “undue judgement”) and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (an outspoken opponent of same sex marriage). Commentators estimate Chick-fil-A has made donations to homophobic organisations to the tune of millions of dollars overall.

Their vice president of corporate social responsibility Rodney Bullard has argued the firm is committed to “relevant and impactful” donations, which, crucially, represents a “much higher calling than any political or culture war that’s being waged.”

Chick-fil-A certainly seem to have lost this battle. The UK shopping centre in which they are based, Oracle, has refused to renew their initial six month lease, and Reading Pride have promised to continue protesting in the interim. But what are the industry-wide implications? Should brands stay out of sensitive issues as a matter of course, or is there another way?

Social justice: are brands winging it?

Chick-fil-A’s uncompromising approach to backing causes they perceive to be in line with their Christian principles clearly marks the chain as an outlier. For most brands, keeping as many consumers as happy as possible is the goal.

Perhaps, though, there’s something to be said for being outspoken. According to YouGov research, 18-34 year olds are 50% more likely than the British national average to think brands should have firm social and political stances. However, their parents disagree; roughly the same percentage of 55+ year olds said the exact opposite, preferring brands to avoid controversy.

This presents businesses with a demographic puzzle. How can they bridge the generational gap? “I don’t think the over-55 issue is a big one,” says Chris Stern FCSI. Barring extreme views or language, “we [55+ year olds] are not going to avoid organisations who have something to say.” However, “the younger generation is more interesting… there’s a massive choice out there so our selection can be based on more than the product itself.”

All brands seek to be on the right side of social change. Just look at marketing activities around Pride Month. June saw cities across the world adorned with the LGBTQ+ flag, with foodservice operators big and small participating. Apps such as OpenTable made a point of highlighting outlets owned by LGBTQ+ restaurateurs. There are even awards for the most effective marketing campaigns.

Some have stuck a flag in the ground on potentially more contentious issues. When José Andrés cut short plans to open a restaurant inside a Trump Hotel, he cited racist remarks made about Mexican immigrants by president Donald Trump on the campaign trail to become Republican presidential nominee. But there was a commercial calculation at work too: would the Trump backers he risked alienating be outweighed by the national profile and support he could build? In the end, he leaned towards the latter.

All businesses must make this calculation. Often the right tone, and how to strike it, only becomes clear once a project gets going, as Stern points out. “We were recently involved in in reimagining the catering offer at a provincial university. We set it up with all the right morals and ethics, with a huge focus on fresh food and provenance. What happened? Subway opened on campus and it turns out that the students really just want cheap and cheerful.” On other, similar projects – for example at a London university – Stern found the reverse was true, with a highly curated offering appealing to an “engaged and interested” community. It’s a case of “horses for courses,” Stern concludes.

For brands still unsure how to approach these dilemmas, it’s worth returning to the theme of choice. With so many restaurants, caterers and suppliers on the market, a good product isn’t always enough to win business anymore. A strong ethical framework encompassing salient issues like LGBTQ+ rights, global warming and fair wages can be a deciding factor. “This is only going to continue and escalate, with organisations having to take increasing care over their public face, beyond simply focusing on their product,” says Stern. “The reality is that public image is at least as important as the product itself.”

Don’t chicken out of change

Brands across the world are operating against fractious political backdrops. Is brand positioning on hot topics a sign of the times, or part of a fundamental shift in how businesses market themselves?

It’s “definitely not a passing fad,” says Stern, “and something that will increase in the first world as we get more and more choice.” For his part, Stern nails his colours to the mast on Chick-fil-A: “You won’t be seeing me in a Chick-fil-A. Just look at what they are about: pro-Trump, anti-abortion and of course anti-gay.”

Chick-fil-A, however, are a big business, with enough capital and experience to weather the storm. They quietly opened another outlet in a Scottish hotel resort at the end of October. Despite a host of petitions springing up to have this branch shut down too, the chain’s doggedness in the face of UK-wide protests suggests their juggernaut brand could yet see them penetrate the fast food mainstream.

Nevertheless, brands should evaluate their stance on the big issues of the day. Smaller businesses risk ruin from mirroring Chick-fil-A’s willingness to court controversy. But as a younger, politically engaged, socially conscientious generation starts to enter the consumer mainstream, getting on their good side with a more nuanced policy on corporate ethics and responsibility could pay dividends. And, in a world where brands are speaking up, failing to say anything becomes a stance in itself.

Thomas Lawrence

 

Further reading:

Walk it like you talk it: consultants address McDonald’s, ethics and brand values