NPR

Chick-Fil-A Gay Flap A 'Wakeup Call' For Companies

Protesters from the Human Rights Campaign chant against Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy's anti-gay marriage stance in front of a Chick-fil-A food truck in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. (NPR)

Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A has long stood by its Bible-based roots, keeping stores closed on Sundays and donating millions to Christian causes. But when its president, Dan Cathy, went public to defend his company's stance against gay marriage, he set off a considerable controversy that has everyone from politicians to puppets weighing in.

First telling the Baptist Press his company supported the "biblical definition of the family unit," Cathy then told the radio program The Ken Coleman Show, "I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we would have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is all about."

The backlash spread swiftly. Boston's mayor pledged to block the chicken sandwich stores from opening in Beantown, a Chicago alderman said he'll try to stop a franchise from opening in his ward and the Jim Henson Co. cutoff its Chick-fil-A collaboration. Because it's a private company, it will be difficult to measure the bottom-line impact of all the attention.

What does a famous chicken sandwich have to do with a polarizing political issue? The connection has long been clear to gay rights groups, which have tried to call attention to the millions of dollars Chick-fil-A, through its charitable arm, has donated to opponents of same-sex marriage. But never before has the Atlanta-based chain been thrust into such a swirling controversy over its faith-based positions. A quick recap of how Chick-fil-A suddenly found itself at the center of one of America's hottest social debates:

July 16, 2012

Company President Dan Cathy gives an interview to the Biblical Recorder newspaper, which is re-posted in the Baptist Press, saying, "Well, guilty as charged," when asked about the company's support of the traditional family. "We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that."

July 18, 2012

Controversy spreads nationally on social media networks like Twitter and Facebook. The Office star Ed Helms announced on Twitter he's boycotting the company over the stance. Helms' tweet: "Chick-fil-A doesn't like gay people? So lame. Hate to think what they do to the gay chickens! Lost a loyal fan."

July 19, 2012

On the Chick-fil-A Facebook page, the company posts a statement saying it's staying away from further discussion of the gay marriage debate. "Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena," the posting said. Company spokesmen sent the same statement to NPR when we requested an interview.

July 20, 2012

The Jim Henson Co., which controls the popular Muppets characters, announces on its Facebook page that it's cutting off its collaboration with Chick-fil-A in response to Cathy's comments. Coincidentally, the Jim Henson Creature Puppets that were to be distributed in Chick-fil-A kids' meals through August were pulled due to "product safety" reasons a few days later.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino writes a letter to Chick-fil-A vowing to block the fast-food chain from opening a franchise in Beantown. "There is no place for discrimination on Boston's Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it," the letter reads. Since the move by Menino, a Chicago alderman and the San Francisco mayor have followed suit, saying the company should stay out of their cities.

July 23, 2012:

In response to the firestorm, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee calls on Christian customers to show support for the company and stick up for Cathy's values. "The goal is simple," he announced, calling on Americans to help those who honor "the godly values we espouse by simply showing up and eating at Chick-fil-A on Wednesday, Aug. 1." As of 11:30 a.m. Friday, Huckabee's Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day already had more than 279,000 RSVPs.

Meanwhile, gay and lesbian groups have called for same-sex couples to kiss at Chick-fil-A stores on "National Same Sex Kiss Day" Aug. 3.

-- Elise Hu

Social Media Spread

Americus Reed, a marketing professor at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School who studies brand loyalty, says Cathy underestimated what might happen once his comments to a niche religious publication and a syndicated radio show spread to a wider audience.

"I think this is part of the wake-up call for companies to understand that social media makes these decisions very, very risky," Reed said, "because it's much easier now for these messages to get out to consumers and consumers to virtually organize."

Support For Gay Rights

But other companies see the risks of going public on controversial issues differently. This year, a handful of big brands have made headlines for taking the opposite side — supporting same-sex rights and benefits.

"From time to time we are going to make a decision that we think is consistent with the heritage and the tradition of the company that perhaps may be inconsistent with one group's view of the world," Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO, said at a shareholder meeting in March.

He explained the coffee giant's pro-gay positions were about making its employees proud — and aligning with its corporate values.

"Since we made that decision there has not been any dilution whatsoever in our business, and as you can see, shareholder value has increased significantly," Schultz said, citing revenue growth in the face of efforts like DumpStarbucks.com, led by pro-family organizations.

The lure of dollars from a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender market is another likely motivator for taking certain social stands. Marketing firm Witeck-Combs estimated the LGBT market's buying power at $800 billion last year.

"I think it's a sign of the times to try and speak to other groups that potentially one has not had a connection with, and that's just part and parcel with trying to grow your market," Reed said.

But beyond the big bucks, corporate reputation specialist Sekou Bermiss says companies may be motivated to contribute to community good.

"More and more, you see firms that are trying to or feel obliged to certain issues in society, [to] do some greater good in society," Bermiss said.

Boycotts And Bottom Lines

Starbucks, Target and General Mills all stepped into the same-sex marriage issue by supporting gay marriage legislation in their home states. Each face ongoing boycotts led by the American Family Association and the National Organization for Marriage for doing so. The National Organization for Marriage said it's uncertain whether its boycotts are having an impact on businesses.

And after JC Penney hired Ellen DeGeneres as its spokesperson, the socially conservative group One Million Moms called for her firing.

"They wanted to get me fired and I'm proud and happy to say that JC Penney stuck by their decision to make me their spokesperson," DeGeneres said on her show. The retailer also started running Mother's Day and Father's Day ads featuring same-sex couples.

But Reed says companies that make a social argument for business gain should be prepared to change course if an outcry leads to longer term losses.

"Most brands are keeping their heads down because these are very controversial sorts of strategies. And it probably makes sense — good business sense — to not weigh in on these issues," Reed said.

That's a lesson Chick-fil-A seems to be learning quickly.

It declined requests for an interview, but in a statement said, "Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate to the political arena."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Chick-fil-A is backing away from controversial comments by its president. He caused a stir when he spoke out last week against same-sex marriage. The company now says it will stay out of policy debates as protests and counterprotests spring up at Chick-fil-A stores across the country. In Washington, D.C., yesterday, about two dozen activists demonstrated at a Chick-fil-A lunch truck.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Chicken is good. Chicken is great. Why we got to discriminate? Chicken is good.

SIEGEL: NPR's Elise Hu has this story on the risks and rewards for companies that take controversial political positions.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Chick-fil-A has long stood by its Bible-based roots, keeping stores closed on Sundays and donating to Christian causes. But when its president, Dan Cathy, went public to defend his company's stance against gay marriage, he set off considerable controversy.

DAN CATHY: I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we would have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is all about.

HU: Backlash spread swiftly on social media and beyond. It's too soon to see bottom-line impact, but mayors of a few major cities now want to stop Chick-fil-A's expansion. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino pledged to block new restaurants from opening in Beantown. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee both say the chain doesn't share their cities' values. Wharton School of Business professor Americus Reed, who studies brand loyalty among consumers, says Cathy underestimated what might happen once his comments to a Baptist newspaper and a syndicated radio show got out.

AMERICUS REED: I think that this is part of the wake-up call for companies to understand that social media makes these decisions very, very risky because it's much easier now for these messages to get out amongst consumers and consumers to virtually organize.

HU: But other companies see the risks of taking public social stances differently. This year, a handful of big brands have made headlines for their support of same-sex rights and benefits.

HOWARD SCHULTZ: From time to time, we are going to make a decision that we think is consistent with the heritage and the tradition of the company that perhaps may be inconsistent with one group's view of the world.

HU: That's Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz at a shareholder meeting in March. He explained the coffee giant's pro-gay positions were about making its employees proud and aligning with corporate values.

SCHULTZ: Since we made that decision, there has not been any dilution whatsoever in our business, and as you can see, shareholder value has increased significantly.

HU: Beyond brand alignment, corporate reputation specialist Sekou Bermiss says companies may be motivated to contribute to community good.

SEKOU BERMISS: More and more, you see firms that are trying to or feel obliged to certain issues in society, do some kind of good in greater society.

HU: Firms like Starbucks, Target and General Mills stepped into the social issue by supporting gay marriage legislation in their home states. Each now face ongoing boycotts led by the National Organization for Marriage, but the group says it's unsure whether the boycotts are having any financial impact. And after JCPenney hired Ellen DeGeneres as its spokesperson...

ELLEN LEE DEGENERES: It's true. I'm gay. I hope you're sitting down.

(LAUGHTER)

HU: ...One Million Moms, a self-described pro-family group, called for her firing.

DEGENERES: They wanted to get me fired, and I am proud and happy to say that JCPenney stuck by their decision to make me their spokesperson.

(APPLAUSE)

HU: Not only did the retailer stand by DeGeneres, it ran Mother's and Father's Day ads featuring same-sex couples. But Wharton's Americus Reed says most big companies remain cautious and do their best to keep out of the culture wars.

REED: I think most brands are keeping their heads down because these are very controversial sorts of strategies, and it probably makes sense, good business sense to not weigh in on these issues.

HU: A lesson Chick-fil-A seems to be learning. It declined our requests for an interview, but in a statement said, quote, "Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate to the political arena." Elise Hu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular