Coram Deo ~

Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview

Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A: How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand by Steve Robinson

Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A: How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand by Steve Robinson. Thomas Nelson. 246 pages. 2019

There is no organizational culture I respect more than that of Chick Fil-A. I have eaten at numerous Chick Fil-A restaurants across the country, gotten to know our local Owner/Operator, read about their culture from Ken Blanchard and Patrick Lencioni, and read books by Chick Fil-A insiders Mark Miller, Truett Cathy, Dee Ann Turner and now Steve Robinson, who was chief marketing officer and executive vice president for the organization for 34 years, until his retirement in 2015. His job was to provide the tools and the strategic architecture to build the Chick-fil-A brand.
The author states that nobody knew better than the organization’s founder Truett Cathy that grace is the Chick-fil-A brand. Chick Fil-A aims to create a place where good meets gracious.
He writes that Chick-fil-A is built on biblical values and principles that were fundamentally rooted in its founder and that play out through a business that serves and values people and tries to honor all. He writes that with this book he hopes to honor God’s favor not only on his life and career but on Chick-fil-A as well.
I really enjoyed reading about the evolution of the Chick Fil-A culture and brand.
Today, nearly one hundred thousand people work throughout the Chick-fil-A chain of about 2,300 restaurants, serving more than 3 million customers every day, or 1.1 billion per year. The organization’s corporate purpose and their “why”, is:
“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.”
The organization’s mission is to “Be REMARKable.” Chick Fil-A wants every customer’s brand encounter to be remarkable, to leave an above-average, positive impression. To that end, they have attempted to create experiences that people would want to talk about.
As the author tells the story of the Chick Fil-A brand, he states that almost every aspect of it begins with Truett Cathy’s heart. He writes that he may have been the most humble man the author ever knew, as well as the most generous and wise. He describes him as a man in a prayerful, humble, obedient, servant relationship with God, and he saw that same man lead a company of men and women to heights the world marveled at. He writes that in their prayer time before each executive committee meeting, the leaders often spent more time praying for one another and our families than they did for the business. Who wouldn’t want to work in an organization like that?
He writes that Cathy knew that a successful brand builds a foundation on relationships, relevance, and reputation. He truly had a desire to honor God and be a positive influence on every person he came in contact with.
What is it that makes Chick Fil-A different? After all, in 2017, the average Chick-fil-A freestanding restaurant had sales 70 percent higher than the average McDonald’s location and four times that of an average KFC location.
The author takes the reader on a history of Chick Fil-A, beginning with Cathy opening the Dwarf Grill in 1946 with his brother Ben, who would die in an airplane crash three years later.
Below are some of the many takeaways I had from this book:

  • Great brands become great when they are consistent on every key level of execution.
  • The liberal use of “Be Our Guest” cards (for free food from Chick Fil-A).
  • The decision to close on Sundays. This set the tone for what was important. It was a day set aside for all who were part of Chick-fil-A to rest, be with family, and worship, if they so chose.
  • The creation of a unique store-leadership financial model. The author writes that the deal Cathy created in 1967 is incredibly generous and is a “win-win”.
  • Operator selection is the most important decision made at Chick-fil-A. The business model of highly compensated, highly motivated Operators who are in business for themselves but not by themselves became a foundation of the chain’s success.
  • The creation of the Chick-fil-A Team Member Scholarship program in 1973.
  • Chick-fil-A’s charitable giving is about 10 percent of the corporate profits.
  • Operators and market Operator teams, not the home office, provide 80 to 85 percent of tactical and financial support for execution of brand marketing. The home office provides the Operators with the tools and training they need, but they finance and participate in the execution.
  • The introduction of Waffle Fries in 1985, which are still the number-one-sold menu item.
  • Differentiating themselves by delivering food to the customer’s table, providing drink refills and offering to remove their trash from their table.
  • Pioneering fast food in shopping malls, and only later opening freestanding units, licensed restaurants on more than 250 college and university campuses, and in hospitals and airports.
  • The introduction of new menu items such as breakfast, grilled chicken sandwiches, milkshakes, salads, etc.
  • The Cow campaign was not only rewarding in terms of sales and engagement, but it received many awards and honors over the years,
  • The organization’s involvement with college football, which helped develop a national brand.
  • Cathy’s desire to be debt free, which the organization achieved in 2012.
  • Inspired by the service he had received at a Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Cathy challenged Operators to respond with “my pleasure” instead of “you’re welcome” or “no problem” whenever a customer thanked them.
  • The “First 100” program (free Chick-fil-A for a year) to the first one hundred customers at Chick-fil-A grand openings.
  • Three broad strategic categories of activities that had developed over the years that, all working together at a location, created “Raving Fans” – Executing Operational Excellence, Delivering Second-Mile Service, and Activating Emotional Connections Marketing.
  • Word-of-mouth advertising is the most powerful marketing anywhere. To earn it, you must be doing things worth talking about.
  • You can’t just provide a product; you must provide an experience.
  • Brand relevance, not just innovation for its own sake, was a top priority of the marketing group—to keep the brand relevant to customers’ lifestyles, tastes, and expectations.
  • The greatest influence on building a successful business and brand is its culture, which rises and falls on leadership.

So, what is it that makes Chick Fil-A unique? You know it when you eat at one of their restaurants. The author shares core values that shaped and filtered virtually every vital decision the organization made during the course of more than thirty years of working with Cathy:

  1. Being a Good Steward. Truett believed that every dollar that flowed through Chick-fil-A belonged to God, and they were to be stewards of it. That point of view allowed him to be both generous and thrifty.
  2. Building Long-Term Relationships. Truett’s relationships were for life. If you were going to be a part of Chick-fil-A, there was no reason for you to ever go anywhere else in your career.
  3. Providing Hospitality. “My pleasure” creates an immediate communication that you really do matter.
  4. Taking Personal Responsibility. Personal accountability is empowering, and it was an important aspect of Cathy’s relationships.
  5. Choosing Personal Influence over Position Power. If their influence and their performance depended on a title, they were the wrong person for Chick-fil-A.
  6. Having Fun. One of the virtues that evolved in the business was a tangible effort to be unexpectedly fun.