Friday, August 3, 2012

The 9th Rule, Not the 1st Amendment

Maybe you should Super Size that.
You know, for God.

Okay, I'm not going to weigh in on the already weighing-too-much Chick-fil-A slap-fest. People who know me know where I stand. Or think they do. But that's not the point of this post.

Because this isn't Russia, or China, you can say almost anything you want without going to prison for it (if it doesn't disclose a danger to National Security). That's guaranteed by the frequently misunderstood but too-often-cited First Amendment. And CfA President Dan Cathy's (as ironic a character name in this tempest about LGBT rights if there ever was one) venting his inner biases on a nationally syndicated talk show is not a matter of freedom of speech. He can, obviously, say whatever he wants. Just as any of us can. Just as I can in this blog.

But I want to talk about marketing blunders, not human rights violations.

The Clock's Always Running

The Ninth Unbreakable Rule of Marketing states that everything you do is marketing. There is no off-season, no time out. The clock is always running. So though Dan Cathy can claim he was only speaking as a private citizen, exercising his rights of free speech, he wasn't just a private citizen. He was the head of a very large and successful (so far) company. He was speaking as Chick-fil-A, the restaurant chain. The game was on. And therefore he was a bowl of either honey or vinegar to the flies he wanted to attract or chase away from his business.

Mike Huckabee, the Fox News personality and weight-loss poster boy (the ironies never stop) jumped in with the bowl of honey and decided to help Cathy's marketing by calling for a national day of support for CfA. The response was a record breaking day of sales as coreligionist Evangelicals flocked to take years off their life-expectancies at Chick-fil-A's across the country. Great promotion. People just lined up around the block to pack away those saturated fats for the cause. Headlines proclaimed record sales for Chick-fil-A (oh, how spelling out that brand name is so tedious).

On the other hand, Cathy, in alienating the majority of Americans (according to the most recent national polls) who support same sex marriage and LGBT rights, probably lost a lot of business, too. For good. We'll see how his business does in the future without them. And after the food-fight settles down, we'll see if his loyal following are enough to sustain the chain's momentary bump in traffic.

I'm not questioning Cathy's sincerity, or his self-image as a Good Christian. That's also his First Amendment right. I'm just questioning his marketing judgment. CfA is a private company, so he doesn't have shareholders or a board to answer to (unlike that other fast-foodeur, Carl's Jr's ill-fated Carl Karcher,did when he decided to vent his anti-gay opinions in public back in the 80s). But he does have customers. And I'm not sure that it was all that smart to alienate all those customers gratuitously. It's bad enough that they can't get that delicious, deep-fried, avian protein on Sunday.

If you're a gay person, or even a person who believes that gay people should have the same rights as everybody else, from now on you're going to associate the brand Chick-fil-A with an anti-gay agenda. It's not that they would be openly mean to gay customers, or even gay employees. It's that you would think that a portion of the money you give them for that bucket o' nuggets would go to support legislation that would be mean to you and your gay friends and family. That bad taste would last for a long time.

And Cathy can't unring that bell. Or whine about his First Amendment rights. Marketing doesn't care about your puny rights, Earthman.

There is No Real Freedom of Speech in Marketing

Mark Twain, in 1905, made an astute observation about the myth of the freedom of speech:

“The living man is not really without this privilege—strictly speaking—but as he possesses it merely as an empty formality, and knows better than to make use of it, it cannot be seriously regarded as an actual possession. As an active privilege, it ranks with the privilege of committing murder: we may exercise it if we are willing to take the consequences.” 

Freedom of speech--and action--work both ways. You're always free to say what you want. But you're not free from the consequences of speech. Because people can say whatever they want in response. Or do whatever they want. Including stop doing business with you.

People won't eat your chicken, or go see your movies, or buy your gas, or download your latest album, or shop at your stores if they think, by doing so, they're supporting causes that offend them. That's just the way people are. It isn't fair. But the Ninth Rule isn't fair. It's just unbreakable.

So, before you go out and speak as a private citizen, count to ten. Think about how everything you do is marketing.