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Volume 23 No. 18
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An appetite for college football

Chick-fil-A’s Robinson led bowl game to national stage

Steve Robinson spent his final day as Chick-fil-A’s chief marketer, fittingly, at the Georgia Dome watching the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve.

In that same building 21 years ago, Robinson sat with his wife, Dianne, watching the title sponsor-less Peach Bowl between Clemson and Kentucky in a half-empty stadium. Dianne turned to Steve about midway through the game and said, “Steve, why don’t you all sponsor the Peach Bowl?”

From that conversation, Robinson began to look at the game for what it could become, not what it had been, which was a middle-tier bowl that struggled to capture the attention of Atlantans.

As chairman of the College Football Hall of Fame, Steve Robinson was a guiding force in its move to Atlanta.
Photo by: ASHTON STANISZEWSKI
Robinson, armed with his wife’s advice, charged ahead with a plan for Chick-fil-A to title sponsor the Peach Bowl starting in 1997. From those humble beginnings sprang a nearly two-decade association with college football that has simultaneously promoted the bowl while lifting the regional brand into a national powerhouse on a limited budget.

Robinson, who started with Chick-fil-A in 1981 as the company’s first marketing executive, has been the common thread through each of those decisions, from sponsoring the bowl to investing in Atlanta’s new College Football Hall of Fame.

“We’ve grown with the game and the game has helped us grow,” Robinson said.

Much of Robinson’s legacy after 34 years at Chick-fil-A is tied to college football and cows, two separate marketing concepts that Robinson joined at the hip.

The cows came along first in 1995 when The Richards Group, a Dallas-based ad agency, pitched the ideas of cows holding up “Eat mor chikin” signs on billboards throughout the Southeast. Robinson led Chick-fil-A into college football a few years later, and the sport became the perfect platform for the cows and the company, through the title sponsorship and a heavy spend with ESPN. The TV advertising lifted the cows from a regional billboard sensation to a national TV ad campaign.

It proved to be an effective strategy for the Atlanta-based brand, which wanted to grow beyond its Southeastern roots.

“Steve had a vision for how he wanted to take Chick-fil-A into the national marketplace,” said Ed Erhardt, ESPN’s president of global customer marketing and sales. “He came in and said, ‘We want to work with you, we want to do smart things and we’re prepared to invest.’ Steve’s demeanor and passion really drove us to think out of the box, to think about how to utilize the cows, and how to get involved with [ESPN’s] ‘College GameDay.’ He really helped Chick-fil-A become part of the fabric of college football.”

As of press time for this issue, New Year’s Eve was set as Robinson’s final day as Chick-fil-A’s CMO. He will turn 65 in May, and company policy states that employees must retire at 65. Robinson says he doesn’t mind stepping aside, although he doesn’t for a minute think of himself as retired.

He’ll stay on at Chick-fil-A as an adviser through 2015, helping new CMO Jon Bridges however he can. L.J. Yankosky, director of sponsorships and event marketing, has day-to-day oversight of sports. They will lead a department that has grown to 180 people.

“Steve set the wheels in motion for so many important decisions for this company,” Yankosky said.

Robinson envisions himself consulting or teaching outside of Chick-fil-A when he’s not perfecting an already tidy golf game, but the occasion of his retirement recently prompted Robinson to reflect on the changes he’s witnessed and initiated in the last 34 years.

The Peach Bowl that Chick-fil-A began sponsoring in 1997 is now in the College Football Playoff rotation, and Robinson said he expected last week’s matchup to draw three times the visibility of past games because of its new position among the bowl elite.

He also shepherded the College Football Hall of Fame to Atlanta, where he now serves as the hall’s chairman, and Chick-fil-A stands as title sponsor of the hall’s Fan Experience.

“Steve was a guiding hand,” said John Stephenson, the hall’s president and CEO. “He reminded us that, ‘You only open once.’ In whatever shape you open, that’s what you are.”

Behind each of those major marketing decisions was the support Robinson enjoyed from Chick-fil-A’s leadership — founder Truett Cathy, who died in September at 93, and his son, Dan, who now runs the business.

“The main thing Truett wanted to know was whether we could trust each other and have fun,” Robinson said. “And that was the foundation of our time together.”

Robinson shakes his head and smiles at some of the multimillion-dollar sponsorship decisions that were ultimately made by Truett in the span of 24 hours or less, something that could happen only in a private, family-owned business.

“Truett’s ability to let go, not control everything, was chief among his greatest skills,” Robinson said. “I’m a beneficiary of that. I can’t imagine getting those decisions in a public company in one meeting or 24 hours. It’d never happen. That’s one of many reasons I never left Chick-fil-A.”

In Robinson’s first 14 years at Chick-fil-A, the company had steadily grown, but the brand

Robinson, who retired as Chick-fil-A’s CMO on New Year’s Eve, led initiatives that resulted in the title sponsorship of the Peach Bowl in 1997 and the popularity of the restaurant chain’s cow mascots.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
was sometimes considered boring and stodgy, Robinson said, so he brought in The Richards Group in 1995 to inject some much-needed energy.

“We couldn’t afford to go out and buy large volumes of TV and radio, so we needed a different approach,” said Robinson, who explained that the company accounts for just 1 percent of the ad dollars spent by fast-food restaurants. “The core idea was to use billboards in a nontraditional way as a means of building a personality.”

Robinson and The Richards Group worked together on a 3-D billboard campaign with a giant rubber chicken and the tagline, “If it’s not Chick-fil-A, it’s a joke.” It was such a success that Robinson asked The Richards Group to create the next iteration of the billboard campaign. Out of the half-dozen ideas the agency came back with, one depicted cows with the sign, “Eat mor chikin.”

“It was so funny and unexpected, and it was like a backhanded shot at the beef industry without being offensive,” Robinson said. “In the first 90 days of the cows being up on the billboards, there was an incredible buzz.”

In 2005, Robinson doubled down on the cows and college football when he significantly increased the company’s investment with both the Peach Bowl and its broadcaster, ESPN, as well as CBS, which carried the SEC’s top game each week. Chick-fil-A signed a five-year, $22 million title sponsorship agreement, which rebranded the game the Chick-fil-A Bowl and removed Peach from the name.

Robinson and bowl President Gary Stokan banked on the notion that the old BCS eventually would expand into a playoff and, when that day came, the Chick-fil-A Bowl would be positioned for a spot in it. Which is exactly what happened.

“I think 2005 was the tipping point,” Yankosky said. “We made a bigger commitment that really helped elevate the game. Now, being part of the College Football Playoff is the next progression. We’re more of a national brand and we’re playing in the most premier space you can find through the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Steve’s vision drove us in that direction.”

Veteran college marketer Rick Jones of Fishbait Marketing added: “Just look at the growth of Chick-fil-A during Steve’s tenure and the way they have taken market share away from a variety of competitors. He’s an Auburn fan, so he understands the college football fan in unique ways. He’s also one of the very few marketers that realizes that women watch college football in great numbers and these women fans spend money on products they believe in.”

After all of the initiatives Robinson set in motion — the cows, the college football sponsorships, the position in the College Football Playoff — last week was probably as good a time as any to hand over the keys to Chick-fil-A’s marketing. As he prepared to watch his final Chick-fil-A Bowl as CMO last week, Robinson mostly thought about the 200-plus team members from stores across the country who were working activation sites at the six CFP bowl games.

Over the years, Robinson resisted hiring a sports marketing firm to help with strategy and activation. He always wanted actual Chick-fil-A employees interacting with fans at college football games to deliver the kind of hospitality that consumers find in Chick-fil-A restaurants.

“We are not write-a-check marketers,” Robinson said. “Whether we’re activating at a stadium, a fan fest, whatever, we’re always looking to leverage our food, the cows and our people. That’s part of why we’re there, to deliver that unexpected smile. And that’s what our brand is all about.”