In this era of big data and algorithm-driven marketing, it’s tempting to step back and let the computers do our marketing thinking for us.
- Amazon and Netflix study the books and movies you have read and watched, find other people who have read the same books and watched the same movies, and then recommend to you the other books and movies they have bought. And you buy them!
- A/B testing is so easy and inexpensive that the phrases, and graphics, and even the colors in our marketing messages are selected by huge sample experiments. Computers have become today’s David Ogilvies.
- Sensing online behavior has become a science—counting clicks and measuring moments spent on a particular page. Classifying behavior patterns and then marketing to the pattern takes the judgement out of marketing.
But something’s lost in this mechanical efficiency. There’s something artificial in artificial intelligence. What’s missing is the human connection between your company and your customers. There’s a crying need to make marketing human again.
S. Truett Cathy, legendary founder of Chick-fil-A understood the need to make marketing human. He said, “We should be about more than just selling chicken. We should be a part of our customers’ lives and the communities in which we serve.”
Chick-fil-A operators host creative events to serve their communities: Halloween Parties, Football Booster events, Daddy Daughter Date Night, complete with reservations, tablecloths, and flowers. These and other events—from the serious community commitment of military appreciation events to the whimsical Stuffed Animal Sleepovers—are genuine gifts to their customers and communities. In some cases, especially the rural, shrinking towns, Chick-fil-A becomes a community anchor.
The Chick-fil-A Shared Table program gives surplus food to shelters and feeds first responders and victims after a disaster.
The human dimension is the cornerstone of Chick-fil-A’s restaurant experience philosophy. David Farmer, Chick-fil-A’s vice-president of restaurant experience, told BuzzFeed that he strives for a “pit crew efficiency, but where you feel like you just got hugged in the process.”
And their “team members” are taught to treat every customer with respect. They have created a wonderful YouTube series of vignettes entitled “Every Life has a story.” View a few of them. They are touching.
These and other programs build bonds with customers and communities. They work because they are sincere. S. Truett Cathy said, “Nearly every moment of every day we have the opportunity to give something to someone else – our time, our love, our resources. I have always found more joy in giving when I did not expect anything in return.”
Chick-fil-A has given us a perfect example of how to make marketing human.
Still, despite their success at humanizing their practices—perhaps, because of it—Chick-fil-A draws scathing criticism for their association with anti-gay marriage statements and organizations.
Their very sincere and effective community service flows from their roots in Fundamental Christianity: They strive to be paragons of practicing “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
But current CEO Dan Cathy, the founder’s son, made anti-gay marriage statements several years ago. Cathy later disassociated Chick-fil-A from anti-gay views, even meeting with Shane Windmeyer, executive director for the gay and lesbian student group Campus Pride, showing him tax records attesting to Chick-fil-A’s discontinuation of contributions to anti-gay, Fundamentalist Christian groups.
But the “Every Life has a story” video does not include LGBTQ peoples’ life stories, and they underrepresent black American life stories. So, the very success at humanizing their marketing, calls attention to their controversial past associations.
Bottom line: Chick-fil-A’s revenues have not suffered. The company’s fans responded to LGBTQ opposition with Chick-fil-A “Appreciation Day:” Millions around the country showed support, producing a one-day sales record, which overshadowed a “Kiss In” protest by gay marriage supporters.
Georgia State University marketing professor Ken Bernhardt – who consults for the company – minimizes the importance of the controversy. Dr. Bernhardt said the boycott may have attracted new customers eager to support Cathy’s free speech rights. “I think the flap last summer will not have any effect at all long term,” said Bernhardt. “When they open stores, they hire 50 or 60 people and that is good for the community. That means jobs.”
In summary, the Chick-fil-A marketing work gives us an example of how to make marketing human—and how we must explicitly think about which groups we include and leave out of our marketing efforts: the neighbors we embrace and the ones we exclude.
Every company can improve. “Making Marketing Human” is a constant process. It is important to evaluate questions such as: Do the Chick-fil-A anti-gay messages encourage divisive tendencies in our society and detract from their many charitable and loving messages in their brand associations and corporate culture?
Staying within the Christian frame embraced by Chick-fil-A, the Bible illustrated how to “love thy neighbor as thyself” with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Samaritans and Jews generally despised each other, so the Great Exemplar was advocating inclusiveness.
As we marketers strive to make marketing more human, we must make conscious and thoughtful choices about inclusiveness. Do we fully embrace it, or do we intentionally exclude particular groups? Is it possible to be fully inclusive without alienating other groups that insist on exclusiveness?
The latter question is especially relevant with divisiveness and nationalism on the rise and secularism in retreat across the world.
The Chick-fil-A lessons on making marketing human include both successful practices for us to consider, and a severe caution: marketers are now in a paradoxical, no-perfect-solution era. If you are exclusive, you will be criticized by those who are excluded and those who want them included. If you are inclusive, you will be criticized for not being exclusive enough. Navigating these choppy waters is the new reality of marketing, and they are nearly impossible to avoid.
Frank Grillo is the CMO of Harte Hanks. He is a passionate advocate for bringing the human back into marketing by better understanding and facilitating customer journeys.
Dr. Karl Hellman is President of Resultrek Inc., a marketing and sales consulting firm. Karl is the author of The Customer Learning Curve (with Ardis Burst, 2004) and his clients include best-in-class companies such as JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, UPS, and Coca Cola.