Chick-fil-A Benefited from Summer's Gay Marriage Flap With More Customer Visits

PHOTO: A customer comes out from a Chick-fil-A, July 26, 2012, in Springfield, Va.

Despite boycotts from pro-gay marriage groups, fast food restaurant Chick-fil-A may have benefited from remarks by president and chief operating officer Dan Cathy that he supported the "biblical definition of the family unit."

The number of people who said they visited Chick-fil-A in the "past month" increased 2.2 percent, according to a third quarter study by chain restaurant market research firm Sandelman & Associates' Quick-Track study. The research firm conducts research for all major fast-food chains in U.S. media markets.

A spokesman for Chick-Fil-A declined to comment.

In an article published on July 16 by the Baptist Press, a news services for the Southern Baptist Convention, Cathy said, "We are very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that."

In response to Cathy's comments, the company was sharply criticized by the gay community. Civic leaders in Chicago and Boston also criticized the company, saying they would not welcome Chick-fil-A to their cities. In September, Chicago alderman Proco "Joe" Moreno later said he would not block the chain from a neighborhood called Logan Square.

Chick-fil-A's supporters responded by organizing an unofficial Chick-fil-A "Appreciation Day" on Aug. 1, during which the company said it had "record-setting" sales.

The company repeated that it does not discriminate against gay employees or customers.

"The Chick-fil-A culture and 66-year service tradition in our locally owned and operated restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect – regardless of their beliefs, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender," the company said in a statement. "We are a restaurant company focused on food, service and hospitality; our intent is not to engage in political or social debates."

The company has also stated that its intent "is not to support political or social agendas."

Jeff Davis, president of Sandelman & Associates, said the entire episode was "something that brought Chick-fil-A to the forefront of peoples' minds."

"There are a lot of people who have an affinity to the brand and when you drive those things together it drives some action," he said.

Two days later, gay-marriage proponents staged a "kiss-in" at Chick-fil-A stores to celebrate National Same-Sex Kiss Day.

The company founder and CEO, Truett Cathy, is a Christian who has kept the business closed on Sundays since opening his first restaurant in 1946. Based in Atlanta, Ga., the company's more than 1,600 Chick-fil-A restaurants continue that practice in 39 states and Washington, D.C.

Its 2011 sales were $4.1 billion, a 13.08 percent increase over 2010's figures, and same-stores sales increased 7 percent, according to Chick-fil-A.

Davis said the company is already known for its "eat more chikin" television and billboard ads featuring animated cows, but the controversy around Cathy's comments drove the company's brand awareness.

Sandelman & Associates asked consumers which chains they have seen advertising in the past month or so.

Chick-fil-A's ad awareness increased 6.5 percent in the third quarter of this year compared to the same period, which was "up significantly," Davis said.

Sandelman also asked consumers where they which restaurants they frequented in the past month, and the responses shows Chick-fil-A's marker share had increased 0.6 percent.

"It's an unusual situation," Davis said of Chick-fil-A's positive outcome as a result of what many companies would call a public relations stumble.

Other companies are usually able to weather the storm of a negative media cloud if they have strong loyalty from customers. Examples include Apple's missteps in changing features of its much-beloved iPhone. In 2010, Apple released its iPhone 4 with some complications around its antenna, dubbed "Antenna Gate." Facebook has also faced similar resistance when it has changed its features, though the number of users continues to climb.

"The commonality is brand affinity. In both cases, people feel very strongly about the brands," Davis said.

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