As Chick-fil-A Heads North, Can It Leave Its Political Baggage Behind?

Some potential ad partners still balk at CEO's gay-marriage stance

Chick-fil-A has long savored its reputation for delicious chicken sandwiches and strongly held traditional values. 

But as the successful and growing fast-food chain's ambitions extend behind its Southern base, and as Americans, especially younger ones, grow increasingly liberal on social issues like same-sex marriage, Chick-fil-A executives are attempting to square their beliefs and their business goals—not always with success.

Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A stores are closed on Sunday in observation of the Christian Sabbath. And three years ago, CEO Dan Cathy—son of founder S. Truett Cathy—told the Baptist Press that he opposed same-sex marriage on religious grounds, explaining that his company is "very much supportive of the family—the biblical definition of the family unit." He added: "Our restaurants are typically led by families; some are single. We want to do everything we can to strengthen families."

CEO Dan Cathy.

His comments sparked backlash among LGBT supporters, who staged a same-sex "kiss-in" at Chick-fil-A locations. Coming as it did during the 2012 Presidential Election, conservative politicians rallied behind the chain, with Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee declaring a "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day."

A new approach

Last year, Cathy acknowledged that linking his personal views to his business was a mistake. "Consumers want to do business with brands that they can interface with, that they can relate with," he said in a March 2014 interview. "And it's probably very wise from our standpoint to make sure that we present our brand in a compelling way that the consumer can relate to."

Nevertheless, Chick-fil-A has become a social touchpoint of sorts, with supporters of same-sex marriage rejecting it and conservative politicians embracing it. Earlier this month, a Fox News radio host dubbed Chick-fil-A "the official chicken of Jesus" during a broadcast condemning same-sex marriage.

That's not helpful as the chain prepares to expand into New York and other big cities.

But it also may be hurting the chain's potential business relationships. Chick-fil-A is currently reaching out to ad agencies with a creative assignment, and at least one agency passed on the potential business because of conflicting points of view.

"These guys are on the wrong side of history, and this is incredibly polarizing to a creatively driven company," an executive at one agency told Adweek, speaking on the condition that neither he nor his agency be identified. "Agencies are not going to want to be associated with companies that are super conservative on this particular issue at this particular time."

An exec at another agency, who also asked not to be named, said his shop passed on the opportunity due to a heavy workload but would have had similar concerns had it participated. "I have a feeling that had it gone on … that conversation would have come up," the exec said.

Distancing the brand from the man

This creative hunt is in its early stages, with agencies replying to a request for information from A Brand Apart, an Atlanta brand consultancy that's managing the process. The assignment is described as a one-off project, with the lead agency status of The Richards Group not at risk. Chick-fil-A spent about $52 million in media last year, up from $31 million in 2013, according to Kantar Media.

When asked about the agency rejection, a Chick-fil-A representative pointed to Cathy's mea culpa in 2014 and stressed that the brand is separate from the man, even if it's the man who runs the $5.7 billion company. "The Chick-fil-A brand is built on the principle that everyone deserves to be treated with respect," the chain's spokesperson said.

The representative also said that none of the agencies that declined to participate in the review cited philosophical differences.

Balancing politics with profits

In his public remarks, Cathy now focuses on Click-fil-A's customer service—in which it excels—not social issues, though he remains steadfast in his personal views.

Of course, he's not the only CEO to promote his personal views through his company. Liberal-minded CEOs like Howard Schultz at Starbucks and Jeff Bezos at Amazon have leaned into social issues with zeal, using their companies as media platforms in the process.

"Increasingly, the lines are blurred between corporations, brands, products, social responsibility, values and community engagement," said Lenny Stern, co-founder of SS+K, a New York creative agency with leaders who came out of political consulting. "And when those things blur and they connect, more and more it's not just the quality of the product, the style of the product or the service [that matters]. It's also, 'What does that brand stand for?'"

"That can be an ad agency or that can be a company," Stern added. "More and more employees want to go to places where the values reflect them. That's one. Two, more and more consumers are more comfortable associating with companies with values that reflect them but, perhaps even more so, are really uncomfortable about doing business with companies or products that reflect values that are inconsistent with theirs."

A similar issue has arisen in recent months for PR powerhouse Edelman, which reportedly lost several executives and potential clients due to its mixed message on climate change (which it has attempted to clarify).

Given such dynamics, Stern noted, companies are "less scared and perhaps more proactively [are] trying to send signals about the values they reflect."