By Dropping the Cow, Has Chick-Fil-A Jumped the Shark?

Just the other day I posted an article about the story of the Chick-Fil-A cow campaign. If you’ve got the time, I’d really encourage you to read the article at the link. Not only is it a wonderful history of the Chick-Fil-A cows, one of the most creative brand campaigns ever, but it highlights a core truth about the creative process – that it usually takes several iterations to land the jackpot. What looks simple in retrospect is always complex in the making.

But this post isn’t about how great the cows have been.  Because after 22 years, the chief marketer for Chick-Fil-A retired, and the new guy they appointed as CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) just dropped the firm that created the cows.

And, they’ve made several new ads. Here is one:

I understand the new guy wants to make his mark. But these are just terrible, and now for the first time I have doubts about the future of Chick-Fil-A. And it’s not just because the new ads lack cows, but because of the message they send.

Doubt is the worst thing that can ever happen to a company’s brand.

Just like with the Volkswagen emissions scandal, trust built over decades can be lost in a moment. Once a customer begins to question a company’s direction, it’s never the same again.

Like the old ad man says in the article on Ad Week announcing the change, a brand is a promise.

And what is the promise Chick-Fil-A gives to its customers? Well, what do people say about the company? Lovable, underdog, like you and me. Just like the cows, they’re “all-American.” Whatever that means to you – and, of course, it means different things to different people, but everybody loves the cows.

To be clear, the cows won’t go away overnight. Instead, they will fade, to be replaced by something new. But what?

These new ads say something else entirely. They communicate a different position entirely. Instead of the little company that could, now they are the big behemoth, number-one-and-we-know-it, champs on the charts. “Best ever in the history of the world,” to quote the guy playing Beethoven.

These ads communicate an entirely different brand promise: snarky winner.

Nobody loves the snarky winner.

I actually wonder if this is a sign of a culture shift in the wake of founder Truett Cathy’s passing, where the core values of the company are beginning to shift. Is it the inevitable move to self-glory I talk about in Think Like a Five Year Old? The consequence of creative success, the shift from hunger to hubris? The beginning of the end, the day Chick-Fil-A jumps the shark?

I hope not, but the new ads sell a different brand promise. To quote my friend Ron Joray, next thing you know, they’ll be open on Sundays.

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).

6 Comments on “By Dropping the Cow, Has Chick-Fil-A Jumped the Shark?”

  1. I’ve never heard the expression jump the shark before but this decision is really surprising as the symbol and messaging is synonymous with the brand. Will McCann be able to “use” the cows (kows) or are they done? New ads are wellll below par but like you said Len, it’s probably a power play by a new CMO hiring his own agency and doing his own thing. Shame b/c the Richards Group helped build ChickfilA’s brand and if the cows go they’ve lost iconic tools.

    1. “the symbol and messaging is synonymous with the brand.” – yes, absolutely! This is the assumption of my comment above. The cows have helped create the meaning the customer now has of Chick-fIl-A. Replacing it with snark changes that meaning, and I believe not for the better.

  2. I dont’ think this is a trust issue, as with VW. It’s a bad execution of what could be a great idea, The idea of promoting chicken sandwiches for breakfast by discussing other things that seemed like a bad idea originally that worked out great is a solid concept.

    Just a bad execution with this one.

    Remember “You got chocolate in my peanut butter”? This is like a new spin on that.

    Picture, “They said going up in the air on a bicycle with wings was a bad idea…” to start the next one. Maybe a little less snark, but same basic concept.

    1. Hey Joel! I agree with the core concept of bad ideas which turned out great but it’s the snark that bothers me, because I think it’s the more subtle yet more powerful part of the message. It’s kind of like the story of Woody from Toy Story, where they rebooted him because he was originally too mean. Check out the “save the cat” theory. You can be sarcastic if you present some essential goodness up front in the message. It shows an underlying heart. Or maybe I am being too hard of the new guy. 🙂

  3. I agree that the execution was bad. The snark doesn’t work well, especially with the Chick-fil-A brand.

  4. Pingback: The Top 10 Most Helpful Posts of 2016 | Len Wilson

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