Q&A: Chick-fil-A’s President Celebrates ‘Cow Appreciation Day’

Dan T. Cathy discusses the success of the chicken chain’s long-running cow campaign.

Chick-fil-A "“Eat Mor Chikin”

Chick-fil-A stores on Friday will be handing out free meals and entrées to an expected half-million guests dressed in whole or in part as cows.

The annual “Cow Appreciation Day,” linked to the 1,550-unit Atlanta-based chain’s 16-year-old “Eat Mor Chikin” cow advertising campaign, last year drew more than 450,000 customers for free sandwiches, the company said.

That number is expected to grow this year with social media and other marketing support.

Customers dressed fully as a cow receive a free meal with sandwich, side and drink. Those dressed with some hint or accessory of a cow get a free menu selection, such as a sandwich or a peach shake.

Mark Baldwin, Chick-fil-A’s senior public relations and publicity consultant, discussed the event’s back-story. “Cow Appreciation Day did not start with Chick-fil-A,” he said. “It was a funny holiday that you saw on websites and with eCards. Some people think it was dairy farmers up in Vermont who started it. It’s cloudy.

“We heard about it and put it on our [annual Chick-fil-A] calendar. So seven years ago, we came up with this deal about dressing as a cow, and we’ll give you a free meal.”

For those “too chicken” to go full-cow, Baldwin said, partial costumes yield a free entrée. “It just opens up our menu to customers and being generous,” he added.

Dan T. Cathy, president and chief operating officer of Chick-fil-A, was in Dallas on Thursday to celebrate the advertising campaign at the headquarters of its creator, The Richards Group.

He spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about the campaign.

What’s the business case for doing something like this?

It’s a total marketing fabrication. [Cathy laughs heartily.] It’s the magic of making something out of nothing. The brand energy and excitement it generates is worth many-fold the cost. It gives a rallying point for our customers who for some whacky reason identify with the plight of these poor, defenseless cows.

The cows have been a very popular advertising icon. Why is that?

You notice they never directly endorse Chick-fil-A. Their cause is just about chicken. So we’re trying to help out the best we can. It all started with a simple billboard with one cow sitting on another, saying “Eat Mor Chikin.” The look, clarity and tone has made it. … It’s kind of like the Nike “swoosh.”

Chick-fil-A doesn’t have a Ronald McDonald or a Burger King mascot. What is the secret to the cows’ popularity?

People have to connect the dots with this icon. They have to exert some mental gymnastics to try to understand why a cow would be affiliated with a chicken company. You have to think through the quirkiness of it. That little theater of the mind, that engagement and curiosity, is just enough thought to make it interesting.

What groups does this giveaway appeal to?

It’s not just children coming in, which you would expect. What’s really amazing is the adults who come in and get excited. They’ll wear the costumes to work, and then come over to the store for lunch. They are quite proud. More come in at dinnertime.

What kind of costume do you suggest?

You can go to www.CowAppreciationDay.com and get all kinds of amendments to wear. Or you can put paint smudges on your face or wear a hat. It creates buzz.

How does it increase loyalty?

We have fans who are loyal, and then we have raving-fan customers. For Cow Appreciation, they want to Tweet about it, blog about it and even write songs about it.

How will you celebrate Cow Appreciation Day?

I’m going to go out with my dad [90-year-old company founder Truett Cathy] in the Atlanta market. For him to be able see the kind of excitement he has generated among our customers — it does him a lot of good.

— Ron Ruggless

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