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Chick-fil-A's Secret Spice: Marketing, Branding, and Corporate Values

Compared to its competitors in the fast-food industry, Chick-fil-A is considered a little bit of an oddity. Not only is it the only privately held, family owned national restaurant chain in the country, its restaurants are closed on Sundays and it spends little on advertising (its advertising-to-sales ratio is 0.6, much lower than the 2.2-4.3 ratio in the rest of the industry) despite having one of the most recognizable brand icons – the cows. Last Wednesday, in a talk organized by the Southeast Club, HBS alumnus Woody Faulk (’92) outlined the reasons behind the success of a company with $1.9B in sales last year and the owner of the distinctive cows.

Everyone remembers the cows. They are quirky and fun, and their message to “Eat Mor Chikin” has tremendous staying power. Who can forget spotting these huge cows holding up signs and propping up billboards all over the country? Developed for Chick-fil-A by advertising agency The Richards Group in Dallas, the cows have proved so popular, they have moved on from being mere roadside humor icons to being key mascots for Chick-fil-A, spawning radio and television advertisements and the fabulous “cow-lendars.” As we reviewed some of the TV ads mid-way through the talk, Faulk explained that the key to keeping these brand icons fresh for customers was by varying the way they are used in advertising and to sharpen the wit and sophistication of the ads as customers get increasingly used to seeing the cows.

Faulk elaborated on the four “emotional connections on which ” Chick-fil-A’s brand equity and publicity platforms are based. The first is its “Mom-approved” nutritious and family-friendly menu, which was the first in the United States to introduce fruit bowls for instance. The second factor is its passion for quality, which runs through everything from product development to the service delivery. The third factor is the customer experience, based on the belief that customers prefer fun and interesting interactions. The last factor is the system of core values and beliefs which govern Chick-fil-A’s actions: its policy of putting customers first; the importance of working together; the drive to continuously improve; personal excellence; and the duty of stewardship for resources Chick-a-fil possesses. Chick-fil-A’s care for one of its resources, its people, is impressive. Faulk talked at length about the reasons for the restaurant chain’s high retention rate of employees. These include a unique profit-sharing scheme for restaurant operators, a scholarship program for younger employees and careful avoidance of wearing people out from over-work.

On a more practical note, those of us interested in a career in the restaurant industry were advised to look into the programs run by the National Restaurant Association, as well as its trade show in May. In general, though, for those of us in the process of searching for career options, Faulk has this advice: “Find a place where you can find purpose, not a profession.” He reminded us that while it is important to celebrate our strengths and use our interests and opportunities to identify options, our individual values and beliefs anchor our sense of purpose and will allow us to find a satisfying career.

January 23, 2006
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