Restaurant Branding Lessons from the Chick-Fil-A Man: S. Truett Cathy

It was with heavy hearts that we awoke yesterday morning to the news of the passing of S. Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-Fil-A. Mr. Cathy was truly a pioneer in the branding, fast-food, and business world, along with being a life-long philanthropist, innovator, and a genuinely great man. The small diner that he opened in 1946 in Hapeville, Georgia, has expanded into more than 1,800 restaurants in 40 states, with over $5 billion in sales in 2013.

It’s intriguing to us that he was able to create a brand that has and will span generations to come. It’s clear that when a brand does reach multiple generations, someone, somewhere did something right, and although Mr. Cathy definitely had a team under him, his vision for branding, marketing, and business planning was exceptional.

His legacy has prompted us at Nice Branding Agency to look deeper into the background of the restaurant chain with regards to restaurant branding. Doing so, we uncovered Chick-Fil-A’s first logo. It’s said that Mr. Cathy paid $50 for this logo, which was originally drawn out on a napkin.

Chick-Fil-A Logo History

In addition, we found that the name came from the Grade-A chicken fillet that would make his restaurant brand so famous one day. Thus came Chick-Fil-A. Completely brillant.

So what is it exactly that we can learn about restaurant branding from these uncovered facts?

First, let’s look at the logo. It clearly represents the main product being served — chicken. You really can’t get much more transparent than to put the head of a chicken in your chicken-restaurant logo.

The second lesson we can learn from the logo is that it has been changed and updated throughout the years. Yikes! Change is scary. We invite you to begin thinking of change as progress, and progress is not only good, but in this instance, great. In the beginning, Mr. Cathy could have never known the impact that his brand would have on America; however, he was smart enough to understand and implement changes on more than one front as his business grew. If Chick-Fil-A was still using that original logo, we are certain that their success would be nothing in comparison to that which it is today.

Let’s take a moment and look at the name.

In his first 15 years in the restaurant business, Mr. Cathy owned a restaurant called the Dwarf Grill (now known as the Dwarf House). In 1961, he discovered a machine that could fry a chicken fillet in the same amount of time that it took to cook a fast-food burger. Initially, Mr. Cathy called his “Chicken Sandwich” product a “Chicken Steak Sandwich.” After further thinking, he felt that the product name he chose didn’t have the customer appeal necessary, so he decided to research. He recognized that the best cut of beef was called a “fillet.” Knowing this, he correlated that his chicken sandwich was going to be the best chicken around, so he went with “Chicken Fillet.” After mixing in some creativity and the fact that his chicken would be the top-quality, Grade-A selection, he added in the capital A, shown prominently in the original logo, and thus named his company Chick-Fil-A.

Once again, we see change as progress took place. Although he had the Dwarf House initially, his new chicken restaurant was totally encompassed in just that — chicken. He didn’t change the Dwarf House to Chick-Fil-A, but instead opened a totally new concept and refreshed his thinking.

We see a name that is descriptive, catchy, and clear. We see a name that correlates with every touchpoint in the restaurant. We are almost positive that the Grade A not only referred to the chicken, but also to the level of service provided by each and every Chick-Fil-A employee. It referred to the level of training and overall goodness that would touch the customer: from the CEO, to the owner, to the employee, to the product, to the cleanliness, to the attitude, and so on.

The correlation of the play on his competition — the burger — is something we have just discovered, but this elevates him to genius status in our minds. He took the named trait of the best of the best of his competition and spun it to correlate to his chicken. Very clever.

What can you learn from Mr. Cathy’s naming-history lesson?

Get creative. Get input. Get help. Research. Discover. Don’t just go with the first business name you come up with. Make certain it has appeal, and not just to anyone, but to your product and your target customer. Make sure it’s relevant to your product, what your company provides, and your overall brand personality. Make sure to get it right from the beginning.

Are you starting to see the importance of how the onset of the restaurant branding process is a key factor to the success of your business? It’s clear how Mr. Cathy thought through all aspects of his business and was able to capture that in a name and a logo mark. Everything from the service to the product to the branding and the marketing must have a focused path, and it must be a path that runs parallel until it comes together at the intersection of success.

Mr. Cathy took his restaurant brand a step (we think a leap) further with the “Eat Mor Chicken” cow campaign. This advertising campaign is probably one of the most recognizable, longest running, and successful advertising campaigns in America today. Dating back to 1995, those mischievous cows have been painting their graffiti up and down the interstates of the United States, and the results have been incredible. Nearly every child and adult who have ever tasted Mr. Cathy’s fried chicken instantly begin to salivate when they see the misspelled advice splattered across the white canvas.

Once again, we see Chick-Fil-A pinpointing their competition and spinning it around in a comical and relatable manner. They don’t come out and say burgers are bad, and you shouldn’t go to Burger King. Instead, they got creative and did their research. They put thought into their campaign, landing on a clever idea that has developed through the years and been carried throughout the brand to multiple customer touchpoints.

Another thing we would like to point out is the belief system around Chick-Fil-A. They have never been afraid to stand for what they believe in. They have never tried to reinvent themselves with regards to their morals, even as the world changed. This shows that you can do what you believe in, if you have a great product, team, and brand to support it. He understood that the consistency of excellent customer service, delicious chicken, and great branding are what makes Chick-Fil-A so special. So many companies, especially fast-food restaurants, are constantly trying to reinvent themselves instead of focusing on what they’re good at. Chick-Fil-A has always been the exception.

“I’d like to be remembered as one who kept my priorities in the right order. We live in a changing world, but we need to be reminded that the important things have not changed. I have always encouraged my restaurant operators and team members to give back to the local community. 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.” — S. Truett Cathy

If you are looking to refresh or begin your restaurant legacy, contact Nice Branding Agency today to begin your journey with a strong brand in place.