Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A
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Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A

How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand

Steve Robinson

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eBook - ePub

Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A

How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand

Steve Robinson

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About This Book

The longtime chief marketing officer for Chick-fil-A tells the inside story of how the company turned prevailing theories of fast-food marketing upside down and built one of the most successful and beloved brands in America.

Covert Cows will help you…

  • Discover unexpected, out-of-the-box marketing methods and new ways of approaching business problems.
  • Understand the positive impact of building a business based on biblical principles.
  • Receive an insider's look at the evolution of one of America's most beloved brands.
  • Learn key marketing and business insights from the man who was the chief marketing officer for Chick-fil-A for thirty-four years.

During his thirty-four-year tenure at Chick-fil-A, Steve Robinson was integrally involved in the company's growth--from 184 stores and $100 million in annual sales in 1981 to over 2, 100 stores and over $6.8 billion in annual sales in 2015--and was a first-hand witness to its evolution as an indelible global brand. In Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A, Robinson shares behind-the-scenes accounts of key moments, including the creation of the Chick-fil-A corporate purpose and the formation and management of the now-iconic "Eat Mor Chikin" cow campaign.

Drawing on his personal interactions with the gifted team of company leaders, restaurant operators, and the company's founder, Truett Cathy, Robinson explains the important traits that built the company's culture and sustained it through recession and many other challenges. He also reveals how every aspect of the company's approach reflects an unwavering dedication to Christian values and to the individual customer experience.Written with disarming candor and revealing storytelling, Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A is the never-before-told story of a great American success.

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Thomas Nelson
Brand Journey
Preparing to Go National—with Cows
By the early 1990s, as we approached five hundred restaurants across the country, our corporate marketing efforts were still focused toward individual restaurants and markets. We began asking ourselves, “At what point do we go beyond supporting just the Operators and markets and start to position Chick-fil-A as a regional and then a national brand?”
The answer, we decided, was when we had opened restaurants in thirty-five states, and we could see that number by the mid-1990s. We were not yet to the West Coast, but we were heavily invested in Texas and had penetrated deeper into the Southwest. We were also moving into the Midwest and up the East Coast with freestanding restaurants.
As we envisioned regional and national marketing, we knew we would never be able to invest enough money in advertising to create a linear relationship between the investment and chain-wide sales. That would have been a misguided transactional focus. We had to build the brand by creating a unique personality for Chick-fil-A that would help build top-of-mind awareness.
For nineteen years, Chick-fil-A was part of a larger destination, the mall. From a marketing perspective, opening freestanding restaurants presented an entirely new challenge. With the first street store in 1986, the issue of brand awareness and what the brand stood for leapfrogged to the forefront. While remaining sensitive to helping Operators drive sales, we would be investing in the brand with a longer-term perspective. Being part of an organization going through that marketing transition was fun and occasionally challenging for all of us, as we navigated the tension between building short-term sales and building a brand of choice.
Our mall-focused advertising agency had done a good job for us in retail merchandising, creating effective in-store graphics and menu boards. When we moved our marketing efforts outside the restaurants to billboards and radio, however, we suspected the work was not memorable enough. We sought ways to position our advertising to present Chick-fil-A as a destination brand, not just a sandwich. We knew it wasn’t by showing pictures of food. Throughout the history of Chick-fil-A, a picture of the sandwich has never done it justice. It’s a piece of chicken on a bun. There’s no emotional connection there—nothing compelling about that.
I was a teenager in 1967 when McDonald’s introduced one of its first national television campaigns with kids singing, “McDonald’s is our kind of place. It’s such a happy place!” Though a voice-over later in the ad would talk briefly about the food, the primary visual was happy children and their parents. Four years later Needham, Harper & Steers (an agency I interviewed with after grad school) won the account from D’Arcy MacManus with the still-famous tagline, “You deserve a break today.” That line would return in 1981, my first year at Chick-fil-A. And though “two all-beef patties . . .” pitched the best-known fast-food hamburger, the biggest chain in the world was trying to grow its brand around the experience.
When we first put our product on billboards, ours was the only chicken sandwich in the market, and that image still wasn’t compelling. When others introduced chicken sandwiches, a picture of ours didn’t look that much different from theirs. You could put a Chick-fil-A logo on a billboard showing the McDonald’s chicken sandwich, and most people wouldn’t see a difference. I’m not sure any of you would either. We’re pretty sure McDonald’s designed it that way, including the two pickles.
In addition to focusing on the food, our agency in the early 1990s was delivering lines that got lost in the crowd. Who remembers, “Wake up, your biscuits are ready”? Again, they did wonderful work in our mall restaurants, but we were concerned the creativity for brand building wasn’t taking us where we wanted to go. Was it too fast-food conventional?
When we had enough freestanding restaurants in a handful of cities to move more significantly into traditional media advertising, we decided to enter into an aggressive advertising test. We engaged marketing consultant Alf Nucifora in 1993 to help us envision our advertising and creative future, then help us design an appropriate marketing infrastructure. Alf, who had served as president of two major advertising agencies, led us through a three-day marketing meeting where we created the “Market 1999 Model.” We built a simulation for Atlanta that assumed one hundred freestanding restaurants and ten more in malls. Then we projected similar per-capita store penetration in Birmingham, Alabama, and Columbia, South Carolina, and created marketing and advertising strategies for those three cities based on those numbers.
To test our plan and our capacity to pull it off, we actually rolled out two-year marketing and advertising campaigns in those cities—investing as much money in marketing in 1993 as we would if we had the projected market penetration of 1999. So that the Operators wouldn’t have to shoulder a dramatic increase, the company paid for all marketing expenses above 1.5 percent of 1993 sales for those three markets. A few months of experience confirmed we didn’t have the level of creativity we needed to establish Chick-fil-A as a major player in the quick-serve environment.
One morning about that time, Dan Cathy boiled down the issue we were all struggling with: breakthrough creative. He asked David Salyers and advertising manager Greg Ingram, “Why don’t we have better advertising? Nobody is talking about our advertising.” He got no argument from us.
At this stage in Chick-fil-A’s history, marketing was still not on an equal strategic footing with our operational focus. David’s response cut to the chase: “If we want great creative, it’s time to get a top-notch creative agency” (code for, “Show me the money!”).
“You find the agency,” Dan said. “We’ll find the money.”
A Different Kind of Search
Typically a company seeking an advertising agency will distribute a request for proposal (RFP) or even post an RFP on its website, inviting agencies to present portfolios and credentials. Then the company will select a group from those agencies to develop and present a pitch, which can become anything from a low-key meeting around a conference table to a parade with a marching band.
We wanted to avoid a circus atmosphere and focus instead on attributes particularly important to us at Chick-fil-A. So, instead of sending out a blanket RFP, David and Greg began to research advertising agencies across the nation who would potentially fit our culture. Like most marketing professionals, David and Greg maintained a file of creative ideas they liked and a list of agencies whose work they admired. They created a preliminary list of agencies from those files and their own experiences. List in hand, they began asking questions of other marketing leaders, like Sergio Zyman, former chief marketing officer at the Coca-Cola company. “At that point,” Greg recalled, “we were making sure we hadn’t left off our list any agencies we should be considering.”
David and Greg narrowed their list to ten agencies from whom they sought more detailed information and samples of their work, asking them to concentrate their samples on outdoor and radio advertising. From these proposals, they narrowed their list of candidates to three agencies, including the Richards Group in Dallas, Texas.
Here is where we deviated from standard operating procedures in the advertising business. Rather than ask our top three agency candidates to create a generic pitch for Chick-fil-A, we gave them a specific assignment—to develop three-dimensional billboards (relatively new technology at the time) and a series of radio spots, so we could compare apples to apples. Our annual advertising budget was tiny, and we knew it would remain small for years to come, so the agency we selected would have to make a big impression with every creative execution. We had already determined that outdoor advertising gave us the best opportunity we could afford, and that 3-D billboards would help us create the greatest point of difference. We also believed we could make an impact with radio, given strong creative.
We invited them to work with us as if we were already doing business together. “Don’t try to read our minds and figure out what we want,” we said. “Ask questions; do your homework.” And we paid them for their work—not a lot, but enough so they understood that we respected their thinking and we were willing to put some skin in the game. During a period of several weeks, the agencies examined the quick-service restaurant industry, talked with our customers in focus groups and one-on-one, interviewed our best Operators, observed our restaurants from both sides of the counter, and even attended our Operators seminar. We wanted them to have all the information they needed to make their best presentation.
At that point in our relationship, we were not making permanent decisions about the specific direction of our advertising. We were just trying to select an agency—evaluating the talent and their commitment. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, calls it “getting the right people on the bus.” After you get the right people on the bus, then you can decide where to go.
Truett liked to say when we selected Operators, the decision is “for life.” We were seeking the same kind of potential relationship with our new advertising agency. That kind of commitment is rare in the advertising world, where frequent turnover is typical, even at the highest levels of management. Most large agencies are subsidiaries of publicly held companies, so management focuses on short-term profitability, revenue streams from every client, and hours billed. It’s a dog-eat-dog world where people pass continually through agencies in order to get years on their résumé so they can land a better job somewhere else. If somebody stays in a job more than three years, that’s a long time. Each of those personnel changes creates a disadvantage for the client.
I also believe that clients deserve the advertising they get. David and Greg visited our three finalists and sought to evaluate their competence, their character, and the chemistry between the agencies and Chick-fil-A. They wanted to understand who was listening to us and who had their own agenda.
In the many hours they spent with the Richards Group, David and Greg saw no evidence of a short-term culture. In fact, they saw the opposite. Like Truett, Stan Richards hired people for a long-term career, and the people he hired seldom left. The Richards Group was seventeen years old at the time, and the average tenure of its creative group heads was almost nine years. Stan called his agency “The Peaceable Kingdom,” after a famous nineteenth-century painting inspired by Isaiah 11 of the lion and the lamb, the bear and the ox, the leopard and the child lying down together peacefully. “We’ve made it our mission to tear down walls,” Stan said.
David recalled, “The thing that made the difference was the chemistry we felt. All the creative work was good from all the agencies, but the Richards Group stood out in other ways. In the advertising business there can be a lot of arrogance. Not with them. We saw character in Stan Richards. Real integrity. Real devotion to the work. It didn’t seem to be about the money to him—not about the dollar signs. He was all about the work! Also, it was important to us that they were privately held—an independent company like Chick-fil-A. And it was interesting to note that, like Truett, Stan Richards was a guy who would never ‘retire.’”
As part of the discovery process, David wanted to learn from each of the three final candidate agencies what they expected of Chick-fil-A. We didn’t have the leverage of a lot of money, so we needed the leverage of being a great client that our agency would love doing work for. “We know we’ll never be your biggest client,” he told each of them, “but we want to know what we need to do to be your best client.”
The question struck a chord with Stan, and he paused before answering. I think he and his team cared about the question because it reflected the kind of commitment they made to their clients. We would be a great client “by respecting the work,” he said. “By respecting the people who do the work and never deviating from that. That’s not to say that everything we show will be a great idea. We may veer off course and miss on an idea, and you can be quick to point that out. But always be respectful. Make it a relationship between partners working hard together to get the right answer.”
That exchange became an important part of “the story” of the relationship between the two companies. For more than twenty years, Stan and David told it fondly and often. After we determined the Richards Group would be our agency, David made another decision that became woven into the fabric of our story. As our team got to know the Richards Group, we became acquainted with their occasional “stairwell meetings,” which were an important cultural phenomenon there. The company offices filled four floors of a high-rise in Dallas, and Stan didn’t want the geography to isolate people from one another. The center of the building was designed like a four-story atrium with balconies all the way around each floor and stairways installed to connect them. Stan encouraged everyone to avoid using the elevator within the agency, and you could see the result as soon as you stepped inside, as people constantly moved up and down the staircases, stopping to talk or meet at the balcony rail. You could feel an almost pulsating energy in the motion of the place.
Stan also used the stairwell and balconies to hold impromptu meetings of the agency for special announcements or good news.
Unbeknownst to Stan, David worked behind the scenes with an assistant at the Richards Group to call a stairwell meeting. Then he showed up at the building with Chick-fil-A lunch for three hundred people and the good news of an exciting new relationship. To the entire staff in their stairwell, David made the same pledge he had made earlier to Stan: “...

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