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Covert Cows and Chick-Fil-A: How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand

Covert Cows and Chick-Fil-A: How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand

by Steve Robinson


Learn More | Meet Steve Robinson

ONE

The Formation of a Brand

Great brands grow from great cultures, and as chief marketing officer at Chick-fil-A for almost thirty-five years, I was indeed operating in great cultural soil.

Truett Cathy had a sincere desire to honor God and have a positive influence on every person he came in contact with. Before the product and profits came relationships with people and with God. When Truett felt he had a biblical insight on an issue, whether it related to people or money or leadership, he tried to humbly and quietly apply that insight. Prudence. Patience. Hard work. Love. Forgiveness. Generosity. These values served Chick-fil-A well.

The year he passed away, 2014, the chain had grown to 1,887 restaurants with $5.7 billion in sales. In the subsequent two years, sales grew by another billion dollars per year, and the culture he created allowed people to continue to thrive. Today, nearly one hundred thousand people work throughout the Chick-fil-A chain, serving more than 3 million customers every day, or 1.1 billion per year. Its tremendous popularity is evident when a new store opens: people camp outside the night before to be among the first one hundred customers of a new restaurant because those customers receive free Chick-fil-A for a year.

Through the years, the leadership team established guiding principles that shaped how they made decisions—principles that were the ingredients of the culture. These provide the framework for the brand itself and for this book, and that framework begins with the Chick-fil-A Corporate Purpose:

    To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.

This is our “why.” And it’s carried out even in the most iconic visual connected with Chick-fil-A: the beloved Cows. One of our former marketing consultants, Alf Nucifora, noted, “The [Cow] campaign offers an interesting insight into Chick-fil-A’s corporate style.” After noting that one of Chick-fil-A’s strengths lies in their commitment to a decision or direction once it is created, “like their Corporate Purpose or Operator concept,” he continued, “they don’t waver. They don’t shift. That is refreshing, and from a marketing standpoint, it can be very valuable, as you can see with the Cow campaign. They have resisted the urge to gussie it up, to change it, to get rid of it, or to do the wrong things to it.”

The Corporate Purpose statement, created in 1982, grew out of a time of financial crisis when the national economy was in the midst of a serious recession and same-store sales fell for the first time ever. Capturing it in writing and disseminating it around the company kept our focus on why we were in business and on the deeply held beliefs that fed our culture.

Truett often talked about stewardship of talent, money, and influence, which belong to God who entrusts them to us. Serving as a steward rather than an owner of the assets gave Truett a freedom to express his generosity by sharing God’s gifts with his associates and neighbors. He impacted many lives, and his model deeply affected me.

As Chick-fil-A grew, with the Corporate Purpose as our cultural foundation, we didn’t think in terms of revolutionary initiatives for building the brand. Others might look at the Cow campaign, or college football, or the introduction of the grilled sandwich as strategic milestones, but we saw them as more than that. The real journey was moving from a sandwich-focused operational restaurant chain to an experiential brand, as we came to understand how Cathy family-style hospitality and relational marketing could be executed in a fast-food restaurant. Out of that understanding came our mission: “Be REMARKable.” We wanted every customer’s brand encounter to be remarkable, to leave an above-average, positive impression. To that end, we attempted to create experiences that people would want to talk about.

To achieve this mission, we created the Raving Fan Strategy, which executed Operational Excellence, delivered Second-Mile Service, and activated Emotional Connections Marketing. These three major strategic pillars represent the operating strategy, and they are all designed to undergird restaurant Operators as they express and build the brand. And that last phrase is key—singular, in fact, in the fast-food industry. Chick-fil-A restaurant Operators serve as the primary expression of the brand as they meet customers at the front line. Only they can deliver the total Raving Fan experience.

Other brands rely on marketing and advertising to drive customers to restaurants. Chick-fil-A relies on the restaurant Operators and the teams they build to attract customers into their restaurants. Others drive; we attract. To make such a system succeed, Truett created a store-level financial model that generously favors the Chick-fil-A Operator rather than the home office or the owners (which was Truett and is now the Cathy family, though they will tell you that God owns Chick-fil-A). This financial model attracts leaders who build a culture of true hospitality.

As I tell the story of the brand, almost every aspect of it begins with Truett’s heart. He may have been the most humble man I ever knew, as well as the most generous and wise.

That’s the basis of the culture, the soil that Chick-fil-A thrives in.

Truett instinctively knew what many professionals spend years learning: a successful brand builds a foundation on relationships, relevance, and reputation.

Relationships

Long before he created the Chick-fil-A Sandwich and decades before he opened the first Chick-fil-A restaurant, Truett Cathy was making friends and serving customers at his Dwarf Grill restaurant in Hapeville, Georgia. His genuine love created a space where people enjoyed good food together and employees truly felt like family. Truett and his brother Ben alternated working twelve-hour shifts six days a week. Truett, who was single when they opened, rented a room in a house next door and slept lightly. If he heard car tires crunching on the parking lot gravel, he got up and walked over to help his brother or the grill man. He developed relationships.

Relevance

Truett had selected the location deliberately. He didn’t want to be lost in the crowd of small diners in Atlanta, which in 1946 included Toddle Houses, Dutch Kitchens, and dozens of independents. The site he chose in downtown Hapeville was on US Highway 41, which connected Miami, Florida, to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In those pre-interstate highway days, thousands of travelers would pass his location every day. Also, Ford Motor Company was in the process of building its new Atlanta assembly plant across the road. Beginning in 1947, the plant would employ more than two thousand hourly workers. Every shift change would be an opportunity to serve workers coming and going. And the Atlanta Municipal Airport and thousands of airline employees were just around the corner. He focused on relevance.

Reputation

Truett and Ben borrowed as little money as possible, $6,600, to build their Dwarf Grill restaurant in 1946. They did much of the construction work themselves and bought used kitchen equipment to keep expenses down. Their total investment on opening day was $10,600.

“I can handle any problem but a financial problem,” I heard Truett say many times. He avoided overextending, and he paid invoices quickly, patterning his life and his business after Proverbs 22:1: “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, loving favor rather than silver and gold” (NKJV). He understood reputation.

Truett Cathy didn’t open the first Chick-fil-A restaurant until 1967, when he was forty-six years old. For the first two decades of his career he ran a mom-and-pop diner. That fact alone explains the difference between Chick-fil-A and so many other American brands. He was a restaurateur.

Truett also never got ahead of himself. He never let financial goals get in the way of personal relationships. In fact, Truett had an aversion to financial goals. To him, that would have been letting the tail wag the dog. When it came to business, his philosophy was to “climb with care and confidence,” adding new restaurants slowly. He could have borrowed more money and grown the chain much faster. Money was never the limiting factor; banks were eager to lend money to Chick-fil-A. Rather, he would never grow faster than the chain could attract talent and build management systems. Disciplined growth allowed him to select Operators who shared his business philosophy and love for customers.

He kept borrowing to a minimum, and he never offered stock for sale. He never wanted the financial demands of bankers or shareholders to compromise decisions for his customers and employees. In essence, he didn’t want to feel obligated to shareholders or lose control.

Most predominant American brands chase transactions, often through rapid growth. They borrow heavily to expand quickly. Businesses often focus on short-term results because of marketplace pressures. This is particularly true of publicly traded companies, which must report quarterly results to shareholders. Private companies sometimes fall into the same trap, foregoing the long-term opportunity to build a brand that people identify with and feel an emotional relationship with—a brand they cannot see themselves living without.

Roots of My Brand Experience

My first exposure to brand building came from my father, John B. Robinson, who, like Truett, started his business shortly after the end of World War II. Dad had grown up on his family’s farm in Radnor, Ohio, northwest of Columbus, where his father raised Robinson Hybrid seed corn, a variety developed by my grandfather in consultation with Ohio State University. He could have stayed in the family business, but he was tired of Ohio winters and knew the growing season was longer in the South. So in 1948, soon after he married my mother, Martha Haynes, they moved to Foley, Alabama, in Baldwin County, where he and his brother Dale started their own hybrid seed corn business. Rather than attempting to build the Robinson Hybrid corn brand from scratch in the South, they chose to plant Funk hybrid seed corn because it had a marketing arm and a network of salesmen calling on seed corn wholesalers, farm supply distributors, and even foreign market distributors. It also led to higher yields for farmers. With more feed corn per acre than regular corn, it was a less expensive option for livestock.

Raising crops just ten miles north of the Gulf of Mexico, Dad envisioned getting a jump on the Midwest market by putting seed corn on barges headed north on the Mississippi River weeks before corn was ready for harvest in the Midwest. He succeeded, but Dad wasn’t the only farmer who had seen the opportunity to get a head start. Over time the proliferation of hybrid corn in the South impacted the price of seed corn in the Midwest. In response (Dad thought, but we never really knew for sure), Congress passed the Farm Subsidy Bill. It propped up corn prices and paid property owners in parts of the Southeast to take acreage out of corn cultivation. In fact, it paid farmers more to plant trees or soybeans than Dad could pay to lease their land for his corn. Whatever Congress’s intentions, the effect of the farm subsidy program was that seed corn producers across the South went out of business.

My dad was left with three options: find some other form of farming, declare bankruptcy, or sell his assets and find another line of work. He chose the third, selling his equipment for about ten cents on the dollar to his older brother, Cecil, who was still in the seed corn business in Ohio. Then he took the money and created a small manufacturing company. One semester short of a mechanical engineering degree from Ohio State University, he had always been drawn toward figuring out how to make equipment work better or more efficiently. He saw opportunities to design solutions to everyday problems and patented a hand nut-gathering tool and a burger press. He also designed (in partnership with an uncle) and manufactured an on-demand livestock watering fountain, and he even created all the machines and implements needed to produce his products.

Watching him, I grew up thinking I would become a mechanical engineer too. He had taught me well, working on machines and rebuilding cars. I enjoyed it. But my father’s inventions didn’t make much money. There were several years when he barely made ends meet. He drove thousands of miles, tracing and retracing the highways of Alabama and the Southeast, calling on his contacts and building relationships with wholesalers and store owners who liked him and his products. I sometimes traveled with him and saw firsthand how he struggled to sell little-known, niche-market products. He was in no position to build awareness and demand with potential customers, so his products didn’t sell as well as others’. He never gave up, though. He was always ready to make the next call. Dad, like most entrepreneurs, was a perpetual optimist. And he had two of the three critical ingredients for brand success: relationships and reputation. What he didn’t have was relevance—his potential users were just not aware of his quality products.

As I thought about how I could help, I realized that retail products with a recognizable brand sold better because of their perceived value. My thoughts at that time might not have been this strategic, but I soon learned the importance of a “brand promise,” or a perception that one brand is better than another or better than a generic option: customers were willing to pay a premium for its higher perceived value.

If my dad had turned sour like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, any good thoughts I had about selling might have withered. Instead, Dad’s everlasting optimism allowed my curiosity around sales, marketing, and brands to bloom in a safe space. Even as a teenager in the 1960s, I began to connect the dots. I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, when Proctor & Gamble, Kraft, General Foods, Unilever, and others were creating identities for multiple products led by brand managers. It was the era of brand development. During my junior year in high school, I decided not to study engineering in college but to pursue a degree in marketing. I had come to a simple conclusion: nothing happens until someone sells something. I wanted a career being that “someone.”

Two Men of the Greatest Generation

My father and Truett Cathy were part of the Greatest Generation, men who were hardworking, persevering, and incredibly loyal. My father treated all his employees with respect and would give you the shirt off his back. If he had any failing, it was that he did that too often. Like lost puppies, people who needed a break were attracted to him.

Truett, too, was incredibly respectful of everyone, no matter their station in life or ethnicity. The first time I walked into his Dwarf House restaurant in 1980, I noticed the diversity of his team: women, men, black, white. And I learned that most of them had been working with Truett for many years, some of them for decades.

To Truett, every customer, every Operator, every staff member, and every team member was important, and the loss of a single one bothered him. He was constantly seeking opportunities for new relationships, often with food and hospitality. He would meet someone and invite them to a meal in his home, calling his wife, Jeannette, at the last minute to say he had a guest, or guests, coming with him. The restaurant business Truett built became an extension of the genuine hospitality that he and Jeannette offered at home. When my wife, Dianne, and I visited Truett and Jeannette just months before he passed away, Truett was in a weakened state—yet he asked us to stay for dinner.

Truett truly had a desire to honor God and be a positive influence on every person he came in contact with. He did not think, How can I create a great brand culture? He simply did what came naturally to him. He made promises that his customers came to trust, and those promises continue to form the foundation of the Chick-fil-A brand.

More than sixty years after Truett started out in the restaurant business, his pastor asked him what advice he would leave for those who manage Chick-fil-A. Truett responded, “Keep on doing business the right way, and always take care of your customers.”

No complex architecture. No lists or graphics. The advice came from the Bible. It was essentially, love God and love your neighbor. Do these, and everything else falls into place. By living those words himself, Truett created a culture of love, respect, trust, and grace that has allowed Chick-fil-A to thrive.

Like my father, though, long before Chick-fil-A became the beloved brand it is today, Truett faced a point when he had to reconsider the direction of his business career. For my father, Washington politics killed the hybrid seed corn business in the South with the activation of the Farm Subsidy Bill. For Truett, the death of his brother Ben, a restaurant fire, and colon surgery led him to reconsider his life’s purpose.

He had opened his Dwarf Grill in 1946 with his brother Ben. Then in 1948, he married his childhood sweetheart, Jeanette McNeil. The three of them ran the restaurant together until Ben died in an airplane crash in 1949. Though Truett had lost his brother and his business partner, he and Jeanette persevered with a vision of owning a chain of diners. In 1951, he opened his second restaurant but almost immediately regretted the decision. With two restaurants, he couldn’t be with his customers all the time. The idea of relationships with customers was real to him, not an abstract notion. He had capable managers at both restaurants, but when managers had problems they couldn’t solve, they called Truett, whose time was then split between the two restaurants.

Fire destroyed the second restaurant in February 1960, and Truett was not carrying enough insurance to rebuild it without borrowing money. He took out a loan, but before construction began, his doctor found polyps in his colon and scheduled surgery. Though there was no cancer, Truett had a terrible allergic reaction to the anesthesia and stayed in the hospital for two weeks. Six months later his doctor found more polyps and told Truett that he required a second surgery. This was a pivotal moment for Truett.

“I was thirty-eight years old, and I did not expect to come home alive,” he wrote in his book Eat Mor Chikin: Inspire More People. Though his wife reassured him, “God isn’t finished with your life yet. I don’t think He’s going to take you,” the experience changed him. He said,

    In those moments I came to realize that the material things I had acquired, the success I had enjoyed with the Dwarf House, meant nothing. What mattered was my relationships with Jeannette, [our children] Dan, Bubba, Trudy, my friends, and most of all, my relationship with God. I experienced a new peace in the car that morning [going to the hospital], knowing that whether I lived or died I would be with God. . . .

    I learned the true value of life and was changed by that understanding. Certain things happen in life that strengthen our faith and remind us of our need to put our lives in the hands of the Lord. I came out of the hospital a new creation, prepared to take on whatever life dealt, for I knew God would be with me.

After he recovered, Truett forged ahead and designed the new Forest Park Dwarf House as a self-serve fast-food restaurant, a new concept in 1961. When it opened, his customers disliked the reduced personal contact so much that he chose to close the restaurant in a matter of months. He leased the building to Ted Davis, who ironically used it to open Atlanta’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. (God does have a sense of humor!)

Truett then poured all his energy into the single operation, the original Dwarf House. One restaurant and one owner on-site, working alongside employees to serve customers, was an experience that would strongly influence the Chick-fil-A franchise model later. It was there he also established the foundations of the Chick-fil-A sandwich:

  • He created and perfected the recipe for the original boneless breast of chicken sandwich over a period of five years.
  • He realized the sandwich was good enough to build a restaurant menu around.
  • He created a unique, memorable name for the sandwich that clearly identified the product and communicated its quality.

During the next few years, he experimented with the recipe. He initially called it a “chicken steak sandwich,” and his Dwarf House customers were his focus group. As the recipe neared perfection, he added those two crucial pickles whose sour tartness complemented the slight sweetness of his breading, and he continued to work on the name. Since he was using the best part of the chicken, a boneless breast—the filet—he changed the name to Chick Filet. Then he added the capital A, which to him implied the highest quality, and Chick-fil-A was born.

Truett planned to license the sandwich to other restaurant owners, so he purposely designed simple preparation procedures that could be repeated in various locations. Then he introduced the sandwich at the 1964 Southeastern Restaurant Trade Association convention, walking away with licensing agreements for fifty restaurants.

But Truett didn’t leave the marketing of his new sandwich to chance. He and Jeanette traveled to towns around the South, talking up the Chick-fil-A sandwich and giving away his now-famous creation, the “Be Our Guest” card, that could be redeemed for a free sandwich at the Dwarf House. They were successful in their endeavors. Even Waffle House, the iconic Atlanta-based restaurant chain, became a licensee. Then, when the Houston Astrodome was completed the following spring, the Chick-fil-A sandwich was sold on opening day, making it an instant hit.

Demand for Consistent Quality: Opening Chick-fil-A

Great brands become great when they are consistent on every key level of execution. A bottle of Coca-Cola tastes the same in New York or in Shanghai. The bottle itself was designed to be distinctive enough to identify in the dark or at the bottom of an ice-filled cooler. Harley-Davidson determined that its sound was important, so it protected that sound, even in the law. You don’t have to see a Harley to know one is coming.

I am convinced that Truett, too, had a sense of this need for consistency. In time, however, he began to notice that as simple as the Chick-fil-A sandwich recipe was, preparing it consistently in every location was not easy. Instead of cooking the chicken immediately before serving, some restaurants were cooking a day’s worth of chicken in the morning and keeping it warm until it was sold. Or worse, on game day at the Astrodome they were cooking all the chicken early, then refrigerating it and later rewarming it during the game.

When the sandwich began to receive negative reviews, Truett knew he had lost control of his creation. He decided he had to be able to control the quality of his sandwich, so he began to undo the licensing deals.

At about the same time, his sister Gladys, who had a card shop in Greenbriar Center, Atlanta’s first indoor shopping mall, suggested that Truett open a restaurant in the mall and feature his Chick-fil-A sandwich. The mall only offered table-service restaurants, but she thought people might prefer another option, one that wouldn’t require taking a long break from shopping or work . . . something they might even want to eat as they walked the mall.

Always the entrepreneur, Truett approached mall management with the idea. They initially didn’t like the idea of selling sandwiches from a counter inside the mall because of potential odors and accumulating waste. He politely persisted, though, and soon signed a lease for a thirteen-foot-wide space. His next step led to a serendipitous relationship with Jimmy Collins, an independent restaurant and kitchen designer, who later would play a vital role in the growth of Chick-fil-A as he ran the operations of the chain. Jimmy helped Truett design this first restaurant, which opened in 1967. It covered less than four hundred square feet of space yet generated more than $180,000 in sales during Truett’s first year. In 1967 dollars, that was not too shabby.

Leasing and building out mall space required much less up-front capital than building on the street, and the mall-only strategy connected Chick-fil-A with a pleasant experience—a visit to the mall. Enclosed shopping malls were new to the suburban scene, and Chick-fil-A Operators enjoyed a significant “image rub” from being in an upscale retail environment. Customers who did not know the brand or the product assumed Chick-fil-A offered high quality because the restaurants were surrounded by other high-quality tenants that had been vetted by the mall developer. As part of the experience, Chick-fil-A became a shopping treat.

Chick-fil-A Operators delivered on that promise. Truett expected operational excellence from day 1, and Operators responded with great food in a clean, wholesome environment.

Truett’s first marketing outreach from the earliest Chick-fil-A restaurant continues to be one of the most effective: giving away the food. In the beginning, he offered bite-sized samples at the lease line, then he added his tried and tested Be Our Guest cards to the mix. The act of giving and receiving, be it a sample bite or a Be Our Guest Chick-fil-A sandwich card, created an emotional connection. The recipient received something free—a gift with no strings attached—and experienced a delicious product. Truett knew if people sampled his product, they would buy it, and he was right. This idea became the inspiration for the early mall-focused advertising line, “Taste it. You’ll love it for good!”

Truett encouraged Operators to give away forty BOGs every day. “Don’t do it hit or miss,” he said. “Invest a little all the time, sample all the time, distribute BOGs all the time.” He instinctively understood the value of consistent, habitual marketing investment.

Smile!

As more Chick-fil-A restaurants opened, Truett enjoyed engaging with guests, and he encouraged Operators and team members to do the same. Jimmy Collins, Chick-fil-A’s first chief operating officer, told this story to illustrate that point. He later wrote it down for me. It is a classic.

    On Grand Opening day of Paramus Mall, as usual Truett was at the lease line offering samples of Chick-fil-A to shoppers.

    As he returned to the kitchen to get a fresh plate of samples, he said to me, “That girl is not smiling.” He pointed to Martha. She seemed to be having a bad day and certainly was not smiling.

    I went to Martha and told her she was to smile at the customers and walked away.

    When Truett returned for another plate of samples, he said, “She is still not smiling.”

    I said, “I will see that she does it this time.”

    But instead, Truett stopped me and said, “I’ll take care of it.”

    I was puzzled. What did he intend to do that he thought would be better than the instructions I was giving her? I watched.

    Truett walked up to Martha and said, “Why is it that every time I look at you, you are smiling?”

    She did give him a little smile, but it didn’t last. I thought, That is not going to work, but kept my eye on her and Truett.

    The next time he passed her as he went into the kitchen, he said, “There you are smiling again.” She gave him a bigger smile that lasted a little longer. By this time I was giving my full attention to watching the two of them.

    Truett would often turn from sampling to smile at Martha. Every time he did, she would smile!

    Soon Martha was wearing a big beautiful smile that lasted the rest of the day.

    That day I learned a great lesson of how the use of personal power is so much more effective than position power. I learned from a master, Truett Cathy. Truett never told her what to do, but he clearly and simply made it attractive for her to do what he expected. As I thought about it, I realized that was how Truett led all of us.

Truett’s approach to hospitality with customers and employees was always the same—personal and genuine. And it always started with a smile.


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