I am sure I just now coined this phrase.
When you have a business, when you have a product, you want a public face, a brand. Brand identification gives your product, your service, your business an association in the public mind. You want customers and potential customers to think of a need and to associate your brand with it. Well established, your brand becomes a valuable piece of property.
“Fronting the brand” comes about when you use your brand to front a personal advocacy. You are putting your brand out front, not to represent your product, but to represent your advocacy. It’s double-edged.
On the front side your brand gives your advocacy additional sway, a momentum your advocacy would not have on its own. The other edge is that fronting the brand can cut backwards. Here are some examples:
Chick-fil-A is a privately held corporation founded by S. Truett Cathy in 1946. The current CEO is Dan Cathy. The Cathy family hold sincere Souther Baptist beliefs, and the restaurants are traditionally closed on Sundays and also on Christmas and Thanksgiving. Beyond closing on Sunday, which founder Truett Cathy attributes as much to practicality as to religious inclinations. There has been more, however.
In January 2011, the media reported that the American fast food restaurant chain Chick-fil-A was co-sponsoring a marriage conference along with the Pennsylvania Family Institute (PFI), an organization that had filed an amicus brief against striking down Proposition 8 in California (see Perry v. Brown). PFI had also lobbied against a state effort to ban discrimination in Pennsylvania on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Responding on its official company Facebook page, Chick-fil-A said that support of the PFI retreat had come from a local franchisee, stating “We have determined that one of our independent restaurant operators in Pennsylvania was asked to provide sandwiches to two Art of Marriage video seminars.”
The WinShape Foundation, a charitable endeavor of Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy and his family, stated it would not allow same-sex couples to participate in its marriage retreats. Chick-fil-A gave over $8 million to the WinShape Foundation in 2010. Equality Matters, an LGBT watchdog group, published reports of donations by WinShape to various anti-gay organizations, including $2 million in 2009, $1.9 million in 2010 and a total of $5 million since 2003, including grants to the Family Research Council and Georgia Family Council. WinShape has also contributed to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Exodus International, an organization noted for supporting ex-gay conversion therapy.
The Marriage and Family Foundation received $994,199 in 2009 and $1,188,380 in 2010. The Family Research Council, an organization listed as an anti-gay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Winter 2010, received $1000.
Tax filings for 2012 showed that Chick-fil-A created a new foundation, the Chick-fil-A Foundation, to grant to outside groups. It funded only one previous group, Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Other filings for WinShape Foundation showed no funding for groups opposed to LGBT rights.
There has been considerable stir over these events. Conservatives and conservative groups have cheered the company’s stance, but at the same time advocates for tolerance and sexual equality have lashed out at Chick-fil-A. My reading of Facebook friends over the past two hears has shown conservatives advocating throwing their business to the company, while liberals have been talking boycott. This is something that would be problematic for a publicly-held corporation.
Suppose you are the CEO of a big (or not so big) corporation, and you have a personal agenda, and you see some benefit to throwing the weight of your brand into the fray. Not so fast. At the next stock holders meeting there are going to be a bunch of share holders raising their voices. “Who gave you permission to use our equity to sponsor your pet project?” Besides that, if the bottom line suffers there will shortly be a new CEO to replace the one who forgot that the business of business is business.
But, in the case of the Cathy family, there are no stockholders to face each year. And with the Chick-fil-A business model, there may not be as much push back from franchise owners. The Chick-fil-A business model is fairly unique in the chain restaurant model. The company builds and owns the restaurants. An operator pays in the order of $5000 for a franchise—the right to operate the restaurant.
If you’re a McDonald’s franchise owner you possibly paid $2 million for the franchise, and you own the business. On the other hand, if you hold a McDonald’s franchise your restaurant is grossing on average more than $2 million a year. But if the McDonald’s CEO starts pulling some shenanigans that chew away at that $2 million a year you’re going to be thinking law suit. So a company like McDonald’s has more than just its stockholders to worry about.
As grim as Dan Cathy’s actions in the past few years have appeared to his opponents, it is not all that dark:
In September 2012, The Civil Rights Agenda (TCRA) announced that Chick-fil-A has “ceased donating to organizations that promote discrimination, specifically against LGBT civil rights.” According to the TCRA, Chick-fil-A officials stated in an internal document that they “will treat every person equally, regardless of sexual orientation.” In a letter from Chick-fil-A’s Senior Director of Real Estate, the company states, “The WinShape Foundations is now taking a much closer look at the organizations it considers helping, and in that process will remain true to its stated philosophy of not supporting organizations with political agendas.”
According to Chicago Alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno, Chick-fil-A has a statement of respect for all sexual orientations in an internal document called Chick-fil-A: Who We Are and has promised that its not-for-profit arm, WinShape, would not contribute money to groups that oppose gay marriage.
According to Focus on the Family web site, CitizenLink.com, “Chick-fil-A and its charitable-giving arm, the WinShape Foundation, did not agree to stop making donations to groups that support the biblical definition of marriage in exchange for being allowed to open a franchise in Chicago.” Mike Huckabee stated that he “talked earlier today personally with Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick Fil-A about the new reports that Chick Fil-A had capitulated to demands of the supporters of same sex marriage. This is not true. The company continues to focus on the fair treatment of all of its customers and employees, but to end confusion gave me this statement.” The statement provided by Chick-fil-A was posted on Huckabee’s website.
In March 2014, new tax filings from 2012 showed Chick-fil-A stopped funding all but one organization which had been previously criticized. The company also created a new foundation, the Chick-fil-A Foundation, to fund outside groups. WinShape Foundation’s 2012 tax filings showed funding only for its own programs, a Berry College scholarship fund and Lars WinShape, a home for needy children in Brazil.
[Some links removed]
Once again the other edge of fronting the brand has started to cut:
Of all the right-wing reactions to Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy’s quiet step back from the marriage equality debate, Scott Lively’s might just take the cake.
In a post on Matt Barber’s BarbWire today, Lively writes that although Cathy has not yet taken the “Mark of the Beast,” his decision to back out of the gay marriage debate “suggests he might be willing to take it if faced with that choice.”
“I am convinced that God is using the homosexual issue as a test of believers all over the world,” Lively continues. “What would it profit Mr. Cathy to gain the whole world (or a few more restaurants on college campuses), if his compromise of Biblical truth today makes him less able to resist the real Mark of the Beast tomorrow?”
“In my mind’s eye I used to see the Mark of the Beast as a black dot on the back of the hand,” he concludes. “Now it looks more like a Chik Fil A [sic] sandwich. I’ll never buy another one, and I hope you won’t either.”
Full disclosure: I am of older than the brand and have yet to eat at Chick-fil-A. This is not out of opposition to the company’s stance on religious and political issues. It’s just that whenever I have had a hankering for a chicken sandwich, such as right after getting out of church, the neighborhood Chick-fil-A always seems to be closed.