Fast Food Politics: Owners Going Rogue

Would you like a side of politics with that?

Fast Food Politics | BCBusiness

Would you like a side of politics with that?

Fast food PR disasters have gone upscale. Once upon a time it was strictly a minimum-wage activity: the dude at an Ohio Burger King standing on bins of lettuce; the dude at a North Carolina Domino’s Pizza sticking cheese up his nose in a viral video, etc. No more. Now it’s Chik-Fil-A owner Dan Cathy saying gay marriage is “inviting God’s judgement on America,” and Papa John’s Pizza boss John Schnatter saying he’ll raise prices in response to President Obama’s health care plan. Why leave it to the peons to screw up your business?

Unless, of course, they’re onto something. In solidarity with Dan Cathy, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee declared August 1 “Chik-Fil-A Appreciation Day,” and on that date the chain set a single-day sales record.

If gay marriage is really such a Biblical issue, you have to wonder why Church’s Chicken doesn’t seem to have a problem with it. Nonetheless, from a strictly business point of view, the Chik-Fil-A move even makes some sense: identify a core group and build their loyalty. Sure, Papa John’s will lose Democrats, but highly motivated Republican chowhounds will more than compensate. Meanwhile, conservative Christians and anti-gay-rights groups now have an official chicken joint. In fact, if I owned a Chik-Fil-A franchise, I wouldn’t even bother putting chicken in the sandwiches anymore. If anyone complained I’d just throw them that look that says, “You’re not one of those pansy-loving advocates for the homosexual agenda, are you?” Then I’d say, “That’ll be 20 bucks.”

You can make a good buck off that kind of cynicism, for a while at least. But in fact, a more respectable version of that strategy is commonplace. It’s a matter of community standards. In Vancouver’s West End, community standards dictate that you snub the gay community at your peril. So corporate representation in the annual Vancouver Pride Parade is genuinely impressive. Virtually every major bank had at least some presence this year. It may be good corporate citizenship, but it’s also just smart.

U.S. news media report that American pride parades have attracted the likes of Budweiser, Absolut Vodka, Zipcar, Google, Coca-Cola, Wells Fargo, AT&T, Whole Foods and Walgreens as sponsors. But in conservative South Carolina, the Columbia pride parade can’t do much better than a couple of minor names in vodka and a brand called Mount Gay Rum. In the Netherlands, large corporations like ING back the Amsterdam pride parade. But look farther east to nations like Poland, Bulgaria and Russia, and you won’t find corporations, just cops. Different cultures, different corporate strategies.

As the old saying has it, people have friends; nations have interests. Corporations, too. Precious and few are the corporations that will do good for its own sake. Corporations adapt to their communities. With apologies to Schnatter’s pal Mitt Romney, corporations aren’t people. Not many car buyers these days worry about the fact that Volkswagen was launched by the Nazis. We live in a different world now, as does Volkswagen.

What’s fundamentally different about Chik-Fil-A and Papa John’s Pizza is that their owners are catering to certain communities by explicitly rejecting the values of others. To be fair, these don’t seem to be cases of well-planned corporate policy, but are more a case of owners going rogue. Statements on the Chik-Fil-A website now desperately try to distance the company from Cathy’s remarks. But the die is cast. Like it or not, Chik-Fil-A is now forever branded as anti-gay, and Papa John’s is GOPizza. The results may well be studied in business schools for years to come.