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Food & Dining

Ideology, economics go into company stands

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 10:40 PM
TAMPA -

Customers at Chick-fil-A today can expect to see a bit of same-sex smooching around their chicken sandwiches and waffle-cut fries, as gay-rights groups protest the company CEO's comments about marriage.

Though Chick-fil-A officials are now working to leave the debate behind, business and marketing experts say social controversy is something companies can hardly avoid in the world of instant social media and hyper-partisan debate.

It seems the days of the non-partisan chicken sandwich or politically moderate washing machine may be fading fast.

In fact, some companies are willing participants. Big brands such as Ikea, Target, General Mills and Amazon have jumped into some of the most controversial modern issues: gay marriage, climate change and economic policy.

"What you're seeing are companies catching on to what is essentially the utopia of branding," said Americus Reed II, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of Business.

"If a brand can transcend the functional attributes of the product itself and resonate with who people think they are or want to be, that creates a deeper sense of loyalty, and when they perceive an attack on the brand, that person responds in defense," Reed said.

Decades ago, a CEO could make an offhand comment and see it fade out of notice.

Today, Reed said, everything is recorded and instantly Tweetable and postable, "and something can go around the world in 12 seconds."

Chick-fil-A experienced that Wednesday when stores were packed with customers coming out to support the chain after CEO Dan Cathy said humanity was "inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.' "

After Cathy went public with his views, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made a $2.5 million donation to keep same-sex unions legal in Washington state.

That sort of activism is not as uncommon as consumers might think.

Target has long supported the lesbian and gay community through volunteering and financial donations to advocacy groups, executives said. That support became public after the company started selling "Pride" brand T-shirts that mixed rainbows and the slogan "Love is Love."

All the proceeds went to the Family Equality Council, which represents same-sex parents.

Likewise, Ikea recently ran "Ikea Family" advertisements in Italy that showed two men holding hands under the slogan "We are open to all families" in Italian. The ads drew scorn from the country's prime minister and Catholic leadership.

The Swedish company may focus on selling couches, kitchen gadgets and frozen meatballs, but the ad was no mistake or aberration.

"The ad reflects not just our inclusiveness of different cultures, but our respect for everyone's lifestyles," said Ikea spokesman Joseph Roth. "Our whole concept is providing affordable, well-designed home furnishings to many people. That doesn't mean many people who fit into a particular stereotype, but to the many people who occupy this Earth."

While ideology is often at the forefront, economics can also factor into the reasons why a company takes a stand.

The food company General Mills took a public position against a proposed amendment to a state constitution that would ban same-sex marriage.

By potentially shunning gay people from Minnesota, executives said, the company would face a disadvantage in recruiting and development.

"We do not believe the proposed constitutional amendment is in the best interest of our employees or our state economy," chief executive Ken Powell wrote in a letter online. "We value diversity. We value inclusion."

One constant in this debate is the never-ending pursuit of profit, said retail analyst Doug Stephens. "Let's not put it past corporate America to gather around the conference table and ask, 'Can we make some money on this?' " he said.

Such stands, no matter the reasons, come with risks.

The research firm BrandIndex measures sentiment about hundreds of brands, with a score of 50 being neutral.

On July 16, the day the Baptist Press published its Dan Cathy interview, Chick-fil-A's score stood at a positive 65, a full 19 points above the average sector of fast-food brands.

Four days later, Chick-fil-A fell to 47, and the following week fell to 39, well below the sector's average score of 43. In the traditionally conservative South, Chick-fil-A's score went from a stellar 80, down to 44, and the score in the North fell from 76 to 35.

Despite that, the outpouring of support that built over the past week led to record sales Wednesday for the company.

Brian Winfield, managing director of Equality Florida, a statewide gay-rights advocacy group, said it's a mistake to characterize these issues as a debate over free speech. CEOs are free to have their opinions, he said. "What Dan Cathy says or doesn't say doesn't matter much."

He said they take issue with the financial support given to groups that try to limit rights. "A portion of every dollar you spend there winds up going to organizations that de-humanize gay and lesbian people."

For its part, Chick-fil-A issued a statement making it clear Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day was not organized by Chick-fil-A, but by social activists who support Cathy's position. "We appreciate all of our customers and are glad to serve them at any time. Our goal is simple: to provide great food, genuine hospitality and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A," it said.

By Thursday, Chick-fil-A executives were working to distance themselves from the controversy, posting a statement online saying, "Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena."

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who helped launch the day of support for Chick-fil-A, came full circle Thursday by defending the right to protest the chain by showing up to kiss.

Speaking to Fox News, Huckabee said, "In America, I believe people have a right to do things that I might not agree with."


rmullins@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7919 Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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