Even though Chick-fil-A is America’s third-largest restaurant chain, they haven’t always been so widely popular. In the 1980s, after operating for over 30 years, the chain faced possible shut down as their expansion ceased.
In an interview with the Christian Post, Steve Robinson, who served as Chick-fil-A’s chief marketing officer from 1981-2015, detailed that the best thing Chick-fil-A ever did was create a “corporate purpose.”
Robinson shared that in 1982, the corporation had an off-site executive committee meeting in which the company decided to put their faith-based values into their official company statement.
“One of the really unique things about that [crisis in] 1982-1983 was it catapulted us to get clear about how we were going to market the business, to get very clear about how we’re going to empower operators to be the primary brand representatives in the community,” said Robinson.
Robinson, whose book Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A: How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand came out in June, explained that 1982 crisis forced to brand to really look at the food service business from a growth perspective.
“It got us really focused on cash management. And it really made us realize our future is probably not in malls and we better be figuring out what else we’re going to do to help the business grow. It led to a two-and-a-half year development process for the first free-stander that opened in 1986. So, yeah, that crisis was catalytic to a lot of stuff, but none more important than the purpose statement.”
Chick-fil-A’s corporate purpose calls on its employees to glorify God in all things that they do.
The statement reads: “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.”
Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A: How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand serves as an unofficial biography of the Chick-fil-A brand, detailing the triumphs, struggles, and changes the brand went through over the years.
The book details how after Robinson first joined many large decisions were made that still impact the business today, like remaining closed on Sundays or launching their “Eat Mor Chikin” campaign.
Robinson shares how the marketing and brand decisions that Chick-fil-A made years ago, still impact the company positively today, as well as sharing personal excerpts about the business’s founder, Truett Cathy.
Cathy, who ran the Dwarf House, a diner in South Atlanta for over twenty years before launching his first Chick-fil-A, was a pioneer in the chicken sandwich world.
“Chick-fil-A was really the pioneer of not only the chicken sandwich but the pioneer of food service in malls,” Robinson shared.
The economic crash
Only a few years after Robinson joined Chick-fil-A, the country went through an economic crisis that hit the food industry hard.
“Mall development came to a screeching halt, retail sales crashed and so did Chick-fil-A sales,” Robinson said. “And we had a real cash burden.”
Robinson explained that during the economic crisis, the executive committee of Chick-fil-A was called to an offsite meeting in order to navigate dealing with the crisis.
“That’s where, as one, we wrote the corporate purpose,” Robinson said.
“I mean, we were on the brink of going under. And when we were sitting in that hotel room talking about what we’re going to do, we made some tweaks to the plan and we froze hirings, we froze salary increases and we cut the number of stores, cut expenses and did all the things a typical business would do.”
Robinson recalled the way that Cathy had handled the meeting, with gratitude at the center. Recalling what Cathy had said during the meeting, Robinson said:
“When I was running the Dwarf House, I had no intentions of creating a chicken sandwich. It was a simple idea. That’s why I was able to do it. I certainly had no idea it would spawn a business. And my primary concern is that we’re good stewards of the gifts that God has given me and us.”
“And he literally told us, if we’re not great stewards of the gifts, then we’re not going to have a right to honor God or to have a positive influence,” Robinson added, recalling the moment. “This business is a gift that God gave me and we’re going steward it together. And if He chooses to help us survive and prosper, great. If not, so be it.”
According to Robinson, Cathy always placed a heavy emphasis on the “why” they were doing things, not just the “what,” they were doing.
“In fact, he even said that even though profits are the lifeblood of the business, it’s up to God whether it survives or not,” Robinson said. “And it set the cultural foundation for our young executive committee because other than Jimmy Collins, the CEO, and Truett, we were all young bucks in our early 30s.”
“And it was a real eye-opening experience. But that statement still is the ultimate litmus test on everything Chick-fil-A does. Whatever the initiative is, if it doesn’t represent good stewardship that has the potential of glorifying God and serving others in a positive way, we probably shouldn’t be doing it.”
Creating the corporate purpose during that meeting would pave the road for years to come, regarding each and every business decision.
Following the creation of the corporate purpose, the fast-food-chain experienced exponential growth, which Robinson called “miraculous.”
“There’s no way to explain it,” Robinson said. “The next year, we had a 36 percent sales increase. And let me assure you the financial crisis and the retail crisis was not over.”
Robinson’s book, which has already sold a large number of copies, is being used as a “case study” for business growth and brand voice in colleges across the country.
“It is just a real brand story,” he said.
“Chick-fil-A figured out how to attract great operators, keep your operators and train them, who in turn attract, keep and develop great team members. Quality attracts quality.”