While serving as Chick-fil-A’s chief marketing officer for more than 34 years, Steve Robinson saw plenty of competing fast food messengers come and go. It’s not uncommon for the characters used to sell burgers to occasionally disappear from advertising campaigns, as if moved into a Fast Food Witness Relocation Program, only to re-emerge months or years later with different looks and slogans.
Chick-fil-A’s preferred emissaries, a group of somber cows with poor spelling skills and keen survival instincts, have carried on largely unchanged since being introduced two decades ago. Robinson, who earned a marketing degree from Auburn University’s Raymond J. Harbert College of Business in 1972, knew he had seen something special when The Richards Group presented potential campaign elements nearly 20 years ago. The Dallas-based advertising firm saved their best idea for the end of their meeting with Chick-fil-A executives, revealing a stern, spotted cow that encouraged diners to “Eat Mor Chikin.”
"It was renegade and unexpectedly fun,” said Robinson, who visited campus during spring semester as Harbert College’s Robert & Charlotte Lowder Visiting Executive in Residence. “You had a sense it would break through the clutter.”
The cows haven’t slowed down – or improved their spelling – since being introduced atop a three-dimensional billboard in 1995. They built a cult following through TV commercials, in-store point-of-purchase displays and contests. Small, stuffed versions of the cows even parachute in from the rafters at major sporting events, offering coupons and a keepsake for the individuals who catch them.
Robinson said Chick-fil-A even went so far as to create a “Moo Manifesto,” which offers guiding principles for the company’s brand ambassadors. Call it the Tao of the Cow. The most important rule? The cows are not allowed to speak.
“It’s written in cow language,” said Robinson, who has served as an executive vice president.
After helping Chick-fil-A grow from a small chain known for shopping mall food court outposts into an industry leader with locations in 40 states and Washington, D.C., Robinson will enjoy retirement. However, Robinson plans to remain active as a consultant and member of Chick-fil-A’s Executive Committee.
Robinson said that, while the “power of the idea” has been a key component in the cows’ enduring status, Chick-fil-A’s success stems from more than humorous commercials. He said Chick-fil-A focuses on being consistent in the food it serves and the experience it provides for its customers.
“Great brands come out of healthy cultures in which there are clear values and a clear purpose,” he said. “Authenticity is not about advertising. It’s not about what we put on Twitter or Facebook.”