Welcome to Will It Stick? podcast, where hosts and marketing experts Melissa and Alexis cover creative advertising campaigns, PR stunts, and marketing activations that brands of all shapes and sizes pull, and dive into the research and data to understand if it worked and of course … Will It Stick?
Chick-fil-A started way back in 1946! It was started by Samuel Truett Cathy, but it was originally called Dwarf Grill in Hapeville, Georgia and was situated near the now-demolished Ford Motor Company Atlanta Assembly Plant and for years it was the place where all the employees would eat. In 1961 after 15 years of running that one restaurant, he found a pressure-fryer that could cook the chicken sandwich in the same amount of time it took to cook a fast food hamburger. He saw a big opportunity and he registered the name Chick-fil-A, Inc. For years, from 1964-1967 he actually just licensed the sandwich to over 50 different restaurants including Waffle House. But, in 1967 Truett decided it was time to make Chick-fil-A a restaurant and it opened its first location in the food court of the Greenbriar Mall in Atlanta and it pulled its licensed sandwiches from all the other restaurants.
It took off from there, expanding into primarily mall food courts through the 70s and into the 80s. It opened its first freestanding location in 1986 and began to move toward that model slowly into the early 90s… and when it moved to that model it suddenly faced a whole new batch of competitors … big burger joints like McDonalds and Burger King. And that’s where our story officially begins.
A chicken restaurant was basically the underdog against these big burger chains, which BIG big budgets. Basically, they were spending more money on their ad campaigns in a single week than Chick-fil-a could spend in one whole year. PLUS, don’t forget that Chick-fil-a only has 6 days each week in which they can capture revenue, since they are closed on Sundays. So this new freestanding model was a bit harder than they initially anticipated.
So, they decided they needed a stand out ad campaign, but their budget was not huge. Their budget was so small that they couldn’t even dive into TV advertising at all – so they decided the route would be three dimensional billboards… and that was a pretty new product in adverting at that point…almost no one was doing it.
They put out a search and they landed on The Richards Group, a Dallas-based firm that wasn’t one of the big ones. Actually it’s a funny story that Adweek reported on in 2016 in a really great story they did all about this campaign. So Stan Richards, the founder and creative director of the agency is in a staff meeting in 1994 when he found out he won the Chick-fil-a account. Guess how he found out, Lex? Not by a phone call, no email, it was 94 so a little early for that…not even by FAX. He found out when the VP of national marketing of Chick-fil-a made a quick trip from Atlanta to Dallas and arrive, unannounced and just walked into the meeting. He interrupted the conversation and grabbed Richards’ hand and shook it and said “we want you to be our new agency.” What an amazing way to kickoff a relationship, right?
And he also told him “we’ll never be your biggest client, but we will do everything we can do to be your best client.”
OK so The Richards Group has the account. They go to work and they start with some data – they need to know exactly where Chick-fil-a stands when it comes to brand awareness. They conducted some focus groups and found that people really didn’t think of Chick-fil-A at all when asked about their favorite fast food chains. So they had their work cut out for them and they had to do it on billboards. They knew they needed a simple, clear message with a strong visual especially since the client wanted this 3D component. They needed something that would seriously stand out.
So they jumped in and they launched their first billboard.
an image of a rubber chicken with a Chick-fil-A logo. Actually the first version had no logo or tagline at all, and it got people curious…who just puts a giant rubber chicken on a billboard!? But then they added the logo with the tagline after people got curious enough about it…It was a cute idea, and got some attention but didn’t really stick or move the needle a ton.
So they tried again. The next one was brought in a 3D element…. Check this out:
This one got more attention, and supposedly the president of Coca-Cola at the time loved the idea, calling up the Chick-fil-A team to compliment them on the clever ad. But still, it wasn’t it.
So try #3: Remember it’s 1995 – what was one of the most popular TV shows that year? Hint: it was a cartoon…The Simpsons! And Lex, do you remember Bart Simpons’ most iconic catch phrase? Don’t have a cow, man! That’s what sparked the whole concept. CRAZY RIGHT?!
So, they put a classic chicken sandwich on a billboard and used the line “don’t have a cow” next to it.
The idea was solid, but there was no 3D element and the product shot of the sandwhich just wasn’t working right. It’s not what Chick-fil-a wanted because that’s what EVERY OTHER fast food chain did. They would feature their food and a low price. That was the formula and Chick-fil-a couldn’t afford to be the SAME.
So one day, an art director at The Richards Group was driving down a Dallas highway on his way home for lunch, and he was REALLY hungry, and a billboard caught his eye. It actually wasn’t what was ON the billboard that caught his eye, it was the people installing the billboard. He wondered what would happen if the team of workers were feeling as hungry as he was and they decided to up and take a lunch break in the middle of the install. What would that look like, with a half finished ad? He brought this idea back to the team and they ran with it.
So now it’s take #4 and this billboard featured another product shot of food, but on the right hand side the billboard was all white and on top of the white space it was a scribbled note that said “Boss, got hungry, back soon” with a yellow ladder posted up hanging below the note.
It was fun, it got attention, it was closer….but it still wasn’t exactly IT. So they decided to combine a few things. They really like the “Don’t have a Cow” concept, and they really liked this handwritten note concept. They asked themselves “who else doesn’t want people to have a cow?” and then Lex, a lightbulb went off.
COWS. COWS don’t want people to “have a cow” because cows would prefer not to be eaten, we’d assume. They’d prefer you eat chicken. Suddently the ideas were flowing, why not use cows to tell the story? Put cows on the billboard and let them beg for people to choose chicken instead of them. And what if the cows were 3D and they were on the billboard ledges like the people putting up the actual art, painting the messages themselves. They would beg the people: Don’t Eat Cows. Eat More Chicken.
Lex – how do you think the client felt about it? They freaking LOVED IT. And fans of the chain fell in love with it, so much so that a few years into the campaign by like 2001, Chick Fil Et was selling something likek $13 million in merchandise related to the cows and the ads!
No one else was doing anything like this! This wasn’t the formula that fast food chains knew, but this worked insanely well. It eventually expanded into TV ads, digital ads, social media, water towers, on foul pouls inside baseball stadiums, even a cow calendar with a new piece of cow creative each month along with a coupon. There were never a shortage of creative cows campaigns.
So they struck gold with this campaign and they were able to iterate on it for 20 whole years! It never got old – cows telling humans to eat chicken instead of them captured our hearts and our dollars. And it seriously, seriously captured our dollars. Get these stats: In 1995, the year before the cows campaign was officially launched, revenue was $501 million. In 1996, it increased to $569 million, ‘97 $672 million and by 2000 Lex – 1 billion in sales of chicken.
When this campaign was in its infancy in 2001, Chick Fil A was spending somewhere between $8-$10 million in advertising per year. In 2021, Chick-fil-et spent $155 million in advertign, and to put it in perspective – that’s like 15th overall for fast food chain in spending. McDonalds spent $459 million in advertising.
Chick-fil-et did $5.8 billion revenue in 2021. But what’s totally insane is that Chick Fil a does more revenue per store than any other fast food chain In 2021, in fact, a typical stand-alone Chick-fil-A outside of the mall generated more than $8.1 million in revenues. That is bonkers.
A McDonald’s store typically brings in around $3 million in annual revenue.
The Richards Group kept the account for a full 22 years, until 2016 when Chick-fil-a got a new VP of brand strategy and media. I’m sure that was a sad day for the agency but they freaking crushed it and I’m sure they are insanely proud. In fact the founder of the agency was quoted in an interview after they lost the account – splitting it up to a bunch of agencies with McCann New York owning the creative – saying that in 20 years there wasn’t a single piece of work they put out for the brand that he wasn’t proud of. They have been moving onto new concepts since – and the cows are still around but they aren’t all that the brand is doing anymore.
Oh wait one thing that I totally forgot about – remember in 2004 when it was that crazy mad cow disease scare? They did pause the campaign for a few months during that time apparently to not seem insensitive to their cow serving competitors.