NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Earlier this month Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy made comments that put the Atlanta-based fast food chain at the center of the debate over gay marriage. During an interview with a Baptist magazine, Cathy said: We are very much supportive of the family - the biblical definition of the family unit. He added: We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.
Outraged activists quickly called for a boycott. Supporters hope to stage a national "buycott." Chick-fil-A is hardly the only business to incorporate political or religious values into their business and to jump into the culture wars in the process.
Business owners, are your beliefs part of your brand? And how does that change the way you operate? 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, a history teacher on the dilemma of deciding what to teach and what to skip as the past continues to grow.
But first, business and beliefs. Chuck Scherer is vice president of marketing and administration at Nelson Wood Shims. They're one of the main wood shims suppliers in North America and several top executives are part of the Christian Businessmen's Association. He joins us from his office in Cohasset, Minnesota. Nice to have you with us today.
CHUCK SCHERER: Thank you, Mr. Conan. Good afternoon.
CONAN: Good afternoon. And so how do the Christian beliefs of many of your top executives affect the way you do business?
SCHERER: Well, they're aligned with biblical principles. For example, we want to demonstrate a high value for honesty and integrity in all that we do. And then our products. We want them to be a quality product at a fair price and deliver all the time and try and exceed the expectations of the customers. So a lot of our business principles parallel biblical principles.
CONAN: That seems to be, though, an internal culture, if you will, not - you don't print Bible verses on every shim.
SCHERER: No. Our mission statement isn't to evangelize the world. Our job here is to make great shims for a good value and a good service and then love one another in the process the way Christ would.
CONAN: And how does that affect your internal policies? Do you have to be Christian to work there?
SCHERER: No, not at all.
CONAN: And if there was somebody gay, would you provide health coverage for their spouse?
SCHERER: If that's what the laws of this land state, that's what we'd have to do.
CONAN: OK. And so internally, how do your Christian values cover your relationships with your employees?
SCHERER: Well, for example, if someone's in a tough spot and we need to help them out with some time off or help them in a way to get their family back in order, we will do what we can to help them get things back in order. You know, in life you have to work to get through life but the people we encounter are precious. We need to take good care of them.
CONAN: And does the company speak out on social issues?
SCHERER: Generally, don't. It's kind of a lost cause.
CONAN: What do you mean by a lost cause?
SCHERER: Well, some people make up their minds about certain things and you can argue and it just ends up being foolishness. It's really important to just, you know what? Just love people where they're at and love the Lord and let them go where they're going to go with their minds.
We can't change their mind. All we can do is love them.
CONAN: And a customer, if he came to you for shims, would he or she be aware in any way that you're a Christian company?
SCHERER: No, but eventually, some customers figure it out and they go, there's something different about you. You've got our best interest in mind. And we try to do that because sometimes you'll find companies that are just interested in getting rich quick. We're really interested in the long haul with our customers.
We want to give them a product that turns well and sells well and it's profitable. Doesn't give them problems. And if they're successful, we'll be successful. So we really want to have their best interests in mind as well.
CONAN: I don't mean to put words in your mouth but it sounds like what you're saying is that your biblical Christian values infuse your goals, your values, your ways of operation, but you're not proselytizing.
SCHERER: No, but if someone asked, I'm prepared and ready to tell them my story.
SCHERER: You know, but I'm not going to push it on them. It's important that - how do you best state it? It's important that you build good friendships as you do business. And people go through things in life and sometimes someone might be going through a divorce or maybe their child has gone wayward and is really causing a lot of grief.
At that point I might say, would it be OK if I pray for you in this situation? And I have yet to have one say, no, I don't want you to pray for me. So I'll pray for them and sometimes they'll, they may ask something again in the future. But really that's all we can do, is really love them and pray for them and answer their questions when they have them.
And sometimes people after 10, 15 years might go, you know what? There's something about this guy that ticks a little differently. I'm going to ask more questions. So that's generally how it works.
CONAN: Chuck Scherer, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.
SCHERER: Thank you for calling, Mr. Conan, and have a great day.
CONAN: Chuck Scherer is vice president of marketing and administration for Nelson Wood Shims and a member of the Christian Businessmen's Association, with us today from his office in Cohasset, Minnesota. Americus Reed II is an associate professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and joins us from a studio there. Nice to have you with us today.
AMERICUS REED II: Thank you very much. Nice to be here.
CONAN: And I was wondering. I'm sure you were listening to Chuck Scherer there. Is that the way most companies operate as opposed to getting out in public on big controversial issues?
REED: Actually, most companies do not operate that way, because it's a very tricky situation when politics and religion mix in with business decisions, which is what we're talking about here.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. In what way? What are you saying?
REED: Well, companies make a decision to attract customers to try to grow their market and when you're talking about very controversial issues that may have very little to do with what the product is actually about in terms of delivering something to the customer, it becomes a strategy that's potentially very dangerous because you might alienate a large group of consumers who might interpret your message in a way that they find offensive, which is what is clearly happening here.
CONAN: The famous remark, I guess, by Michael Jordan after he was just coming out to play basketball. It was the Senate race which involved an African-American candidate in his native North Carolina he was asked to endorse and he reportedly, maybe apocryphally, said Republicans buy shoes too.
REED: Exactly. And so when you're thinking about your customers, you're making a strategic decision, a return on investment decision as to whether or not you're going to get involved in these culture wars.
CONAN: So is it good business?
REED: I think typically it is not because I think that you are creating a situation where you might make a large number of consumers not want to buy your product. And if you're really forward-looking, you're thinking about growing your market over time.
And so you don't want to close off necessarily any opportunities to be able to grow that market by having, again, a message that you might believe as an individual or that even might be infused within the DNA of the company, to have that message misinterpreted in your mind by a group of consumers who will then potentially react in a way that we're seeing now, for example, with social media and information going around the world so quickly, such groundswell of consumer dissent that emerged from this issue.
CONAN: Is there any evidence, though, that this is going to fundamentally affect the - obviously too early to tell in the case of Chick-fil-A, but we heard a cut of tape from the Starbucks CEO who said their taking an open stance on the other side of the issue has not affected their sales one bit.
REED: Yeah. I think that's the interesting question. I think these - historically speaking, these sort of situations tend to not necessarily hurt the bottom line but they tend to not necessarily help, either. So if you're Chick-fil-A and you post revenues, for example, earlier in February, $4.1 billion in revenues and there's a market out there, a gay and lesbian community that has consumer spending power upwards of $850 billion, it just doesn't make business sense to get involved in a discussion that could potentially be interpreted as that community saying that - or interpreting your message as being: you don't want to sell us chicken.
And so from that point of view, it doesn't make a lot of sense.
CONAN: So that is distinct, though, the public message from the internal set of operations - the way the company operates.
REED: I think that's correct, but when you have the transmission of a message from sender to receiver, you have the unfortunate possibility of those messages being interpreted in various kinds of ways. It's just a risky sort of thing and if at the end of the day you just want to sell chicken, then it might make sense to, you know, certainly affirm your beliefs and stand behind those beliefs internally, but not necessarily create a situation where you might create consumers perceiving you as pushing your values onto them.
CONAN: I see. We want to hear from business owners today. Are your beliefs wrapped up in your brand? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll start with Monica and she's on the line with us from Baltimore.
CONAN: Hi, Monica. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MONICA: Wow, this is exciting. I'm actually calling today because the topic is near and dear to my heart. We have a company, a construction company called Apostle Construction and when the name was chosen for this by my husband, he was told that Apostle Construction was not a good name because it would keep a lot of people from supporting us.
And he said, no, this is what I'm going to call it because I want people to know what I stand for.
CONAN: And how has it worked out?
MONICA: Well, the company was started in 1996 and we're still here and surprisingly enough, oftentimes we get business not necessarily from people who are Christian believers as we are, but some reach out to us because they assume and believe that we're going to treat them fairly and provide a good service and that we're trustworthy.
CONAN: And there's no attempt at disguise. We got a shot of your website and there's a picture of hands praying on the website.
MONICA: You cannot deny.
MONICA: What we believe. And we just made a decision to stand up for what we believe in and we don't go out and, you know, try to hit anyone over the head but it's very clear. And oftentimes, people want to have discussions with us about it and different things but it has not affected us negatively, and this is the path we've chosen and we will continue to do so.
No matter what I believe, as the expert was saying about your market share and different things in the future, we just have a belief as to whatever business we're supposed to get we're going to get and God's going to provide the way for us. And so as long as we honor him he'll take care of us.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much, Monica. Good luck.
MONICA: Thank you. Bye-bye.
CONAN: And Americus Reed, we are talking obviously about a much smaller business there than Chick-fil-A, so there may be distinctions.
REED: Absolutely. I think that in a smaller sort of situation that's - it sounds as those this particular company is completely family-owned, etc. So these are decisions that can be made internally that, you know, cannot potentially affect or not have the same sorts of consequences that we've seen with Chick-fil-A. So I think that's fine.
CONAN: We're talking about what happens when businesses and beliefs collide. Does it change the way people make decisions about where to spend their money? Business owners, are your beliefs part of your brand? Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about businesses that make their beliefs part of the brand. It's been several weeks now since the head of Chick-fil-A spoke out against same-sex marriage. Time has yet to diminish the controversy. The mayors of Chicago, Boston and San Francisco all expressed frustration with the fast food chain. Students at several schools launched petitions demanding Chick-fil-A leave the campus.
The Advocate, a magazine for gay and lesbian news, posted a recipe for people to make their own sandwiches. Others praised Chick-fil-A for standing by their values, including the Reverend Billy Graham. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee launched a national "buycott," a day of appreciation for Chick-fil-A, and Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota and one-time presidential candidate, called recent statements by public officials "chilling."
"Now you have the police power of government intimidating and threatening people, being used to intimidate and threaten people, based on their free speech rights and their religious views," he said. A spokesperson for Chick-fil-A recently said the company operated on biblical principles but will no longer take part in the debate over gay marriage.
Business owners, are your beliefs part of your brand, and how does that change the way you operate? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's also npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our guest is Americus Reed II, associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.
And let's see if we can get Kevin on the line. Kevin's with us from Houston.
KEVIN: Hi. I've got a sports photography business that I built from scratch and I find it interesting that we do encounter competitors in the market who feel that I guess what I would call proselytizing is a required ingredient for putting out a good product. What I've found has worked for our firm is to just withhold high ethics - hold high ethics, rather, and particularly for photography it means not intentionally shooting children in a position that demeans them or would cause embarrassment for them later, given that there are winners and losers.
And we've actually taught photographers ways of running our business that, you know, help uplift what people are trying to do. And I think that's part of what some people might consider a Christian ethic, but really, religion has not played a part at all. And in fact, we've gained comments from some prospects who found others that do that sometimes offensive.
CONAN: When you say they do that, how? Is it like our previous caller, the Apostles' Sports Photography company or...
KEVIN: Exactly. When someone goes to the trouble to point out that they're running their business on Christian principles as if that's necessary to run it ethically and in a good quality fashion. I've actually had clients to come to me as they bring me business saying, you know, we just kind of find that offensive that people think that they have to share their religion in order to show us that you're able to produce a good product. We let the product speak for itself.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much. Good luck.
KEVIN: Thank you.
CONAN: And Americus Reed, that's - let the product think for itself - I think most businesses would say that's the way we prefer to operate.
REED: I think that's correct. I think what's very interesting in the previous caller, Kevin's point is that, you know, we're talking about a high quality product. We're talking about trust. We're talking about treating your customers the way that they should be treated - honest, treating them fair. These are not principles that necessarily need to be tied to any particular religion.
So I think it's very interesting to think about it in terms of, you know, why it would be necessary to put a label on some of these principles, if you will. It's not necessary as an ingredient for good business.
CONAN: It was interesting also in the Chick-fil-A case that the president of the company made it clear that this was a company policy or part of the company policy rather than, for example, Jeff Bezos of Amazon who gave $2.5 million to Washington United for Marriages. It's a coalition working to legalize same-sex marriage in the state or, well, to win the election on that issue this coming November.
He separated himself from the company. This was Jeff Bezos, this was not Amazon.
REED: Mm-hmm. That's right. I think the separation issue is fairly interesting and very important because the brand and the values - and the individuals who run these companies, who build these brands, are certainly free to express their own opinions. I think, as I've mentioned before, it gets very tricky when those messages become intertwined and groups of consumers start perceiving those messages in offensive ways.
CONAN: Let's go next to Chris. And Chris is on the line with us from Springfield, Missouri.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRIS: Well, thank you very much. I happen to live in a community that basically I'd say is predominantly a Christian community. They wear their cross on their sleeves. I've worked in the area. I'm close to Branson, Missouri and I worked down there for 10 years and I found constantly that in order for me to continue on or to forward my business I was told I had to attend a certain church or go to church.
I had to live by certain rules that were established by the theaters down there, which was God, country, and things like that. I also own a business, a software anti-piracy company, and I have struggled for 10 years in this community both politically and other ways by not getting the financing of the venture capitalists. I'm being, doors are being closed to me constantly. I'll get an interview and then two weeks later - there's an excitement about it and then two weeks later they're never heard from ever again.
We have tried in both the colleges and everything like that to push our business but I find a lot of doors close, insomuch that there's mega-churches here and they continually have businesses within their churches. And I find it strange that most of these churches don't even adhere - they say biblical but I think it was Jesus who chased the moneychangers out of the church. And I find it ironic that that doesn't hold much credo around here.
CONAN: So your beliefs - by not putting your beliefs into your brand or their beliefs into your brand, your business is suffering, you think.
CHRIS: Oh, yes. Constantly. And I said - politically, too, but around here, you're Republican and you go to church. So that's basically the credo here. And if you're not, then you suffer quietly. I try to struggle with employment and constantly I'm finding myself if I'm hired by somebody, eventually it gets around to what you believe and how do you believe.
And then later on down the road you find that you're getting the short end of the stick; jobs or you're let go or you're the first one off the pallet. You know, it's quite a struggle. And it's not just me. There's other businesses. There's a lot of people who, they keep quiet about their political views and they keep quiet about whether or not they go to church on Sunday.
CHRIS: Or there's a particular church that you have to go to in order to promote your business, one in particularly. I won't say which one it is, but most people in the community know which one it is.
CONAN: Oh, Chris, thanks very much. Sorry to hear about your situation.
CHRIS: Uh-huh. Thank you.
CONAN: And that sounds less like a business plan, Americus Reed, than - than conformity.
REED: Yeah. I think that's pretty rare in what we see in today's sort of dynamic business world, but it certainly sounds a bit oppressive, for sure.
CONAN: It's interesting because companies send messages in different ways, one of which is by hiring various celebrities as spokespersons. JC Penney and Ellen Degeneres, for example.
REED: Correct. And I think that that's, again, one of the issues of the brand. What does the brand want to stand for and who is going to be the steward of the brand to represent the identity of the brand? And so JCP - JC Penney, excuse me, made a very conscious decision that in the strategy of trying to revamp perceptions of their retail environment, their stores, that it would make sense to bring in Ellen Degeneres, who is a very popular figure, to be a part of that effort to create a different perception of their brand.
CONAN: And so she's presumably not going to say anything about her sexuality but on the other hand what great deals you can get at JC Penney.
REED: This is true. And I think it's also very interesting because it probably won't come across as anything explicit in that case but it will certainly come across with respect to JC Penney as, hey, you know, we're standing up in the sense of, we believe - we see ourselves as a very progressive brand and so making this connection with Ms. Degeneres is a way to kind of - to affirm that and to also present the company and the brand and the retail environment that it represents in that way.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from a listener. Home Depot spends millions on LGBT issues and it's part of their corporate ethos, yet no uproar? The same with Office Depot. Dissent on this issue will not be tolerated. Free speech for me but not for thee. In other words, companies that take the other side of the gay marriage issue do not get criticism. But I hesitate to correct the person but there was a boycott from the American Family Association after the Home Depot thing came out.
CONAN: So, there is pressure on both sides.
REED: Yeah. And there's risk on both sides. Again, this is - yeah, I want to be very clear, that I want to separate out the merits of a strategic business decision from taking a position on any political or religious issue. And the idea here is very simple, that, you know, you want to think about your business. You want to think about the return on investment and the strategies that you employ.
And you want to think about protecting your business' viability over time as you grow your market. And so in that context, you know, whether or not you're anti- or pro-gay marriage, it doesn't make sense to bring those values into the conversation because it just creates more unnecessary risk for your brand, especially at the end of the day when all you're trying to do is just sell more chicken.
CONAN: Let's go next to Moz(ph). Moz is on the line with us from Harvester in St. Louis.
MOZ: Hello. Hi.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, Moz.
MOZ: Hi. How are you doing? Actually, St. Louis, Missouri. I don't know how the Harvester got in there, but that's OK.
CONAN: Me neither. Go ahead.
MOZ: I just - I have an interesting story for you. I'm actually an Iranian-American, a citizen, and I opened my first restaurant business in St. Louis in 2004, for myself, here in St. Louis, across the street directly from a synagogue or a shul, as you may know it. And, well, I was immediately approached by the Judeo sect of our community to pay alms to the shul in order for it to come over and bless my restaurant.
Unfortunately, due to certain circumstances prior to that, I'd been caring for the restaurant for a special thing that we did, I wasn't able to do that. However, we worked it out, and we're getting along famously for eight years now. So this is now a Greek restaurant across from a Orthodox Jewish synagogue, and it's doing really, really well in a very good neighborhood in St. Louis.
About five years later, I opened another restaurant, which is actually a fusion of Persian and Latin food known as Flaco's here in St. Louis, which is also doing very well. And one of my managers decided to paint the front of the restaurant the color of the rainbow. I was approached and questions were raised about why we're using that color and why the rainbow and, you know, references to the gay community. And I just jokingly said that, you know, I wasn't aware that, you know, the colors of the rainbow were - somehow now belong legally to the gay community and nobody else could use it. It was just a joke.
However, my whole point of this thing is that I came here to this country to be successful as a businessman. And it should - any business, especially someone that - a huge business, like this huge conglomerate, multifaceted franchises should know better. This is America. Have we forgotten we came - why we're here? This is the melting pot of the world. We come here to get successful - to be successful, get along and do our business and be happy and help each other and, you know, and help the community.
And I just don't understand. I'm beside myself to think that even, you know, any kind of social-political stance should even enter a business contract that you have with your community and people around you. And that's my point. That's it.
CONAN: All right, Moz. Thanks very much, and good luck with your restaurants. We're talking with Americus Reed II, an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.
And let's see if we can get Alicia(ph) on the line. Alicia's with us from Houston.
ALICIA: Hi. This is Alicia. I wanted to bring out just a couple of points real quick. One was that a lot of people in the GLBT community down here do actually consider themselves to be Christian. So, in some senses, it's not necessarily a religious point, but more of a political standpoint that separates people.
And the other part was it is very popular. Christianity, you know, the Bible Belt, all that - so it is a very geographic thing, to the extent that a lot of companies down here, smaller companies, will build their business by advertising themselves specifically as Christian. And I just thought that that was - those were a couple of important points to bring out.
CONAN: OK. Thanks very much.
ALICIA: Thank you.
CONAN: And, Americus Reed, I wanted to ask you about this email we got from Cathy(ph) in Arvada, Colorado: After our last presidential election, a nearby nursery hung their flag upside down because they were so mad that President Obama won. That did it for me. I quit buying from them, told my neighbors to do the same. Why would you be so controversial and own a business?
I think that's the point you've been trying to make.
REED: Yeah. I think that's right. I think, you know, you're treading on very dangerous ground when you are putting your business at risk to, again, intermingle values that you may hold, and they may be values that you hold very strongly, but intermingle those values with business decisions. And that's essentially what the previous caller was referring to.
CONAN: And it's interesting. There are corporate issues involved, and Chick-fil-A, as we mentioned, is based in Atlanta, in the aforementioned Bible Belt. They've got a lot of franchise owners in other places, though, and I imagine those people in San Francisco and Boston and New York and various other places are not tremendously pleased with corporate marketing at the moment.
REED: I think that's right. I think that they have over 1,600 stores. And by the way, it's not very easy to become a franchisee of Chick-fil-A. They get approximately 10,000 applications per year, of which they have maybe between 60 to 75 slots of new stores that they plan on opening. So it's a very difficult business to get into.
But if you think about what they're doing, you're buying into the brand. So from a certain point of view, you know, you're relying on the equity that has been built up by that company, and you're going to step in and put some money down to help grow that business and sort of piggyback on that brand.
So if there is anything that is inconsistent with the business decisions that you're trying to make as a franchisee, as a function of some of these principles, if you will, that may have been imbued within the context of how the company operates, that could introduce a lot of problems. And that could introduce a significant impediment to growing your market.
CONAN: It could also introduce an opportunity for your competitors. I think it's KFC posted on some of their signs: Delicious Chicken Served Without Hate.
REED: I actually saw this. And, again, this makes the point that I was originally making on NPR on Friday as to the wake-up call regarding social media and these issues, which is another reason why it doesn't make good business sense to weigh in on cultural matters, political and religious matters. And that's because information goes around the world now in 12 seconds, and before you know it, you've got competitors now that are leveraging this controversy to try to take away your business. And so it just, again, doesn't make sense to get involved in these risky kinds of decisions when, at the end of the day, you just want to sell some more chicken.
CONAN: Will, on the other hand, most people have forgotten about this in six months' time?
REED: I think so. I think the thing that's really interesting about it is that consumer memory is fleeting, and, you know, there's a 24-hour news cycle, and so the next story will come along and supplant this. But - and that's - it's still related to my point. It's - even though if it's a short-term blip on the radar screen, it, again, just doesn't make sense with respect to running a business and choosing a market and trying to grow that market, to create messages that might be misperceived by a group of consumers that you would want to otherwise conduct business with.
CONAN: Well, Americus Reed, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.
REED: Thank you very much for having me.
CONAN: Americus Reed II is an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, with us today from a studio on the campus there. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.