Are the Cows Out to Pasture at Chick-fil-A?

I’m not a super nervous guy, but I have to tell you, I’m getting a bit shaky right now thinking about Chick-fil-A and their brand. Obviously I’m not an insider, but when I read the news a couple of days ago about their decision to drop The Richards Group after a twenty-plus-year relationship, I couldn’t help but worry a bit about our friends, the “Eat Mor Chikin” cows.

The recent Adweek article went on to introduce a completely new and different campaign highlighting the chain’s new Egg White Grill breakfast sandwich. New TV spots address the “craziness of eating chicken for breakfast” through a series of commercials featuring the likes of Beethoven, Amelia Earhart, Michelangelo and others. While quirky and sort of funny, I find the spots creepy.

I realize it’s only one campaign designed to meet a specific challenge for the breakfast daypart. Having worked directly on the breakfast launch for Sonic Drive-Ins, I understand how difficult it is to differentiate a brand in a very crowded and very active category (QSR breakfast). I’m still nervous for the cows. Will they eventually be put out to pasture?

As Stan Richards stated in the article, “The cows are core to the brand’s success and certainly we are protective of them—we think we know them pretty well having given birth to and nurtured their unique personalities for more than two decades. We hope the cows live on and continue to thrive with a new family.”

You also may be thinking I just want to rant a bit about how sad it is to see Chick-fil-A leave The Richards Group. Well, yes, I do think it’s a huge bummer because they’ve done great work over the years and helped build a highly identifiable and successful brand. That doesn’t happen every day. This isn’t about account wins and losses – that’s part of agency life and does happen every day.

No. This little commentary is about the cows. It’s about a great brand that has spent years and years, and a lot of money, creating a meaningful and relevant brand through consistent “Eat Mor Chickin” messaging. We all know strong brands are built on a having a solid business strategy, positioning the brand in a simple and consistent way that is relevant to the product and the audience. Chick-fil-A seems to have accomplished this in many ways, and not just through their advertising. They have a business philosophy. They have strong values, whether you agree with them or not. They have a consistent, highly recognizable brand. They also have a very good product.

So, does moving (no pun intended) away from the cows put the overall brand at risk? Again, this is one campaign, and maybe the cows aren’t going away anytime soon, but the pasture gate seems open. Some little feller just might decide to wander off the ranch. And then others are sure to follow.

Certainly the good folks in the marketing department at Chick-fil-A know much more about their specific situation than I do, and I assume they have discussed all of this ad infinitum.

As marketers, I get that we must continually be open to change and finding new and engaging ways to drive revenue. But before we move to the greener grass on the other side of the prairie, perhaps we should consider the potential risks of moving away from a well-established campaign or brand. Several key considerations come to mind, especially when I think about the Chick-fil-A brand. These factors, and others, might be helpful as we all assess our own brands:

  • Do you have positive brand equity?
  • Do customers have a strong rational connection to the core product or brand?
  • Do customers have an emotional connection to the brand/product?
  • In today’s content-driven marketing world, do you have ongoing storytelling opportunities?
  • In today’s highly cluttered world, is your brand memorable in any way?
  • Perhaps dependent a bit on the category, but is your messaging humorous?

For Chick-fil-A and the cows, I can easily answer yes to all of the above.

But what if you don’t feel the same way about your brand? Get some cows. Or puppies. Seriously, an obvious answer is you may need more of full brand audit and positioning exploration. Short of that, a good place to start using the Chick-fil-A example would be to start with:

  • Rational Connection: what is the one main functional reason consumers care about you in the first place? Do you know your core benefit or value proposition?
  • Emotional Connection: what do consumers feel in their gut (or hearts) about you? I believe emotion still matters very much, even in today’s data/analytics/ROI world.

Determining those two key connections will then open up the doors to great storytelling, brand likeability, positive brand equity, and so on.

In terms of the cows, as Stan Richards said, I sure hope they have simply found a new family. I just hate to see strong brands wander – for whatever reason. I will hold out hope that the new work is simply a “one-off campaign” and that our friends, the Chick-fil-A cows, will continue to make me smile for years to come.

ADWEEK. July 21, 2016. By Patrick Coffee, Katie Richards.

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