Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that McDonald’s is “taking aim” at Chick-fil-A by improving their chicken offerings. It’s no wonder as the trend toward consumption of chicken and away from beef is clear and compelling. The Department of Agriculture estimates that Americans consume 92 pounds of chicken per year and 57 pounds of beef.  

Reportedly, the project at McDonald’s, dubbed “Better Chicken” has several key elements, including a buttermilk breading and use of antibiotic-free chicken. Emulating the formula for the product so beloved by Chick-fil-A customers may provide some lift to McDonald’s results. In 2016, Chick-fil-A generated $4.41 million per location. That compares with just $2.55 million for McDonald’s.

In full disclosure, I live in Atlanta and am an unabashed fan of Chick-fil-A. I have the Chick-fil-A app and know the lingo of “split tea” (that is ½ sweet and ½ unsweet for us transplants). Given the number of times I’ve been in a Chick-fil-A (hundreds) and my expertise in the use of observational research, I have a well-founded point of view.

McDonald’s, if you are going to take aim at Chick-fil-A, you would be well served to bring a more holistic mindset to your quest. If you are looking for a few more dollars, a bump in performance, you can probably achieve that by copying them in terms of supply chain, recipes and condiments. These improvements will garner praise, raise the share price and make your current customers happy. That is not to be sneezed at.

There is a lot more money on the table, however, that won’t be captured by mimicking a product. New items on the menu won’t improve the atmosphere in McDonald’s stores, which varies wildly. I can admit that a craving for an Egg McMuffin or McD French fries (admittedly quite delicious) can lure some to ignore other aspects of the McDonald’s experience that are less than stellar. I wonder though, how many drive past a McDonald’s to get to a Chick-fil-A? Even if it’s quite a bit further?

Selling more of a product to current customers absolutely increases revenue. What if you sell more to existing customers and attract new customers? Pick a conservative number. Selling more to existing customers, let’s call it X and a small number of new customers, now you have X+Y. A new customer who returns, tells friends, etc. and soon you have X+Y*Z. What is that worth? A fortune. The companies I work with want the X+Y but what they really crave is the multiplier.

Customers' habits change when the rewards are sufficient. Click To Tweet

Assuming that imitating Chick-fil-A is a serious move, it is important to understand that doing so can’t be just about the food. The recipe that is most important at Chick-fil-A isn’t the breading on the chicken. It is the ethos of the company that shows up in tangible ways such as the behavior of employees as well as the artifacts of their actions. Here are a few:

  1. The restaurants are clean. They look clean and no effort is spared to keep them so.
  2. The restrooms are clean and supplied with the necessities including soap and paper towels that literally and unconsciously tell the guest, “this place is clean.”
  3. The order takers are polite. They look you in the eye. They say, “you are welcome” and “my pleasure” and “it is my pleasure to serve you.” They do it with sincerity, not as a meaningless obligation.

This adds up to an ethic of care. Care for the myriad details that, in turn, add up to an ethos of pride in the food and the experience in every aspect.  Alongside this is care for employees and franchisees. Care so deep that it leads to investment of money, time and, dare I say it – love.

Here’s the thing about ethics and values. If there is no behavioral manifestation of them, they are just words. Hollow at best and hypocritical at worst. When the values and ethics are enacted however, they are reinforced in a bi-directional way. It goes like this:

We do these things, with sincerity, because we care.

We care because we do these things, with sincerity.

Behavior is actually a better predictor of beliefs and espoused values than the reverse. But a behavior, even reliably manifested, that is done with insincerity or without enthusiasm is also no good. How many times have you heard someone say, “My pleasure,” when you knew it wasn’t? This is what happens when a copy copies a tactic but doesn’t have the culture to feed it and make it fully blossom.

Favoring any tactic over another may lead to a bump in performance; but without an enduring systemic view, these are temporary. The relentless pursuit of this mindset is what made Peter Drucker a remarkable expert on business, Warren Buffet an enduring icon of investment and Mary Barra courageous enough to take on the systemic issues at GM.

McDonald’s may do very well with a new chicken line-up but they can do even better by emulating the ethos of Chick-fil-A. Whether you are leading a restaurant company or one in a different industry, the lessons pertain.

What have you seen a company copy? Has it worked? Why or why not?

Please share in the comments below.

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