Chik-Fil-A’s Giveaways, Stunts — and Well-Played Grass-roots Strategy Leads to Sales

AdAge say: For chicken chain Chick-Fil-A, gimmicks and giveaways are ringing sales at the cash register — even if it means having customers get dressed as cows.

Dress as a cow for 'Cow Appreciation Day' and get a free meal.
Dress as a cow for ‘Cow Appreciation Day’ and get a free meal.

Whether its through grass-roots marketing or giving away meals to customers, those stunts by Chick-Fil-A, a growing fast-food chain known for its lightly breaded chicken sandwiches, appear to be paying dividends. It’s all part of a back-to-basics strategy that’s also heavy on word of mouth and community outreach and it has Chick-Fil-A posting gains even as competitors with bigger ad budgets struggle with how much food they can offer for a dollar.

The chain today reported that as of June, systemwide sales were up about 10% year to date, and same-store sales at malls and stand-alone locations were up 3%. The company also increased projected openings for 2009, by five restaurants, to a total of 80.

Appreciating cows
Tomorrow, the chain is holding its fifth-annual “Cow Appreciation Day” when it expects 132,000 people to show up at its 1,450 restaurants. Those dressed in full cow regalia get a free meal — an entrée, choice of side and a drink — but for those who can only pull off a cow-printed accessory will have to settle for an entree.

The event is part of a broader ad campaign that has been phenomenally popular for a fast-food chain that has yet to become a big-time advertiser. According to TNS Media Intelligence, Chick-Fil-A spent about $25.3 million in domestic measured media in 2008, but that represented a 47% increase over the $17.3 million media outlay in 2007.

The promotion itself was born of a desire to bolster the chain’s 14-year-old “Eat Mor Chikin” campaign. (For the uninitiated, Chick-Fil-A’s advertising features cows asking consumers to consume more fowl. Charmingly, the bovines can’t spell. The campaign is from the Richards Group, the chain’s agency of 16 years.)

And Chick-Fil-A has masterfully milked the cow for all it’s worth. The chain creates cow plush toys that have become collector’s items, with a high price on eBay of $15, and an annual cow calendar, which comes with coupons, for purchase at restaurants.

Chick-Fil-A is also known for its ability to stimulate grass-roots marketing responses. The chain routinely offers free food when it opens a new restaurant. And doors often open to a throng of devotees, some of whom have spent the previous night in the parking lot.

‘The funnest’ event
While tomorrow’s event is not the chain’s biggest marketing day, Steve Nedvidek, senior manager-marketing, said it is “the funnest.” He noted that operators now hold parties in their restaurants to prepare for Cow Appreciation Day. Summer bible camps, families and daycare centers in many cities drop by to eat while working on their costumes.

And the promotion has grown since 2004, when some restaurants only served one “cow” customer. Now each restaurant may serve nearly 150. Last year, the chain doubled down on PR outreach and earned more than $1 million in measured media, including coverage on CBS’s “Morning Show” and “ABC World New Tonight.” Chick-Fil-A also focused its manpower on New York City, a relatively new market for the chain. It’s continuing with that focus this year. (Part of that effort included feeding Ad Age’s often ravenously hungry newsroom.)

Mr. Nedvidek said that the sagging economy could make this year’s turnout even more robust than expected. He pointed out that Cow Appreciation Day was already an accepted holiday. “We just started leveraging it,” he said.

The chain is planning another big giveaway on Labor Day. And this one has a lower bar. To promote the onset of the sporting season, anyone arriving at a Chick-Fil-A wearing any sports logo — be it for a professional team or a pee-wee league — will receive a free chicken sandwich.