The relationship between religious ideology and corporate branding in America is one which fascinates me, and can be best demonstrated through taking a look at the recent successes of the fast food franchise Chick-fil-A.
Despite its status as America’s “second largest quick service chicken restaurant chain”, until recently it was unlikely that you would have heard of the brand. However, this all changed in July, when the President of Chick-fil-A, Dan T. Cathy, thrust fried chicken to the top of the news cycle when, in defense of his company’s decision to donate millions of dollars to anti-gay groups, he publically expressed his stance against gay-marriage, saying: “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’. I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.”
In true Culture War style, the backlash that this generated amongst moderates, liberals and the LGBT community in America was matched in the rest of America’s support for the fast food chain. A “day of appreciation” was organised for Chick-fil-A at the beginning of August, with the droves of customers lining up in ideological affiliation with Cathy, leading to a record day of sales.
Just another day in Evangelical America is what you might be thinking, and you’d sort of be right – the number of people who turned out to “appreciate” Chick-fil-A may represent a considerable portion of American society, but not necessarily a definitive one; in terms of size and influence they might be able to swing a Republican Primary, but never a national election.
But then consider this: after 44 years of consecutive sales growth since its inception in 1967, and a profit of $4.1bn made in 2011 alone, Chick-fil-A had their best day of sales, ever, and all because Cathy decided to publicly air his views.
The news of those at the very top of Chick-fil-A aligning themselves to fundamental Christian views was unsurprising however. Already somewhat notorious within the fast food industry for keeping their restaurants closed on Sundays, in the FAQ section of their website you can eavesdrop on this informative nugget of conversation between Q and A:
Q: What is the Corporate Purpose of Chick-fil-A, Inc.?
A: To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.
According to the Chick-fil-A site, all of this is “part of our recipe for success”, making God one of the most profitable secret ingredients since Coca Cola’s Merchandise 7X. What was surprising howeverwas the timing of them – after being part of the forty-five year old business for so long, why come out and so explicitly s the Chick-fil-A brand in such a way now?
Of course, Cathy was being asked to comment on the issue of gay marriage in a semi-personal capacity, and as an already hot talking point since more and more states seem to be OK legalising it, it’s clear that he was just responding to the current shift in the nation’s status quo. But for a President of a multi-billion dollar company, who has undoubtedly spent enough time in rooms full of business analysts, it’s almost impossible to believe that there was not an awareness on his part of the impact that his comment would have as the words left his mouth.
The consequences of Cathy’s words proved that, by publically supporting Conservative Christian values, a business can reap an unprecedented amount of profit. Although this model isn’t limited to just the right; on the other side of the country’s ideological spectrum, the same rules apply. In 2011 the LGBT market’s buying power stood at $800 billion. It’s impossible to accurately second guess, but by knowing this, it’s hard not to become cynical towards what you would otherwise assume to be socially progressive, and otherwise benign, corporate behavior. Take Kraft for example, who caused controversy in June (mostly amongst those would have supported Chick-fil-A) when they published a picture of a rainbow-coloured Oreo on the biscuit’s Facebook page. From a progressive standpoint I assume we share, this is something we can all get behind. But it would be naiive to be too busy applauding Kraft to actually think about it (however cynically) in terms of their overall business strategy. On social matters, a corporation’s behavior may come from the heart on occasion, but again, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t the usual filter of data-filled boardrooms and strategy meetings standing between their hearts and their audience. And so while it fascinates me, I cannot help but feel cynical towards the relationship between ideology and branding in corporate America, although if it is in the name of a worthwhile cause such as marriage equality, there is a chance that we are able to forgive it.