Barry Kern of Kern Studios in New Orleans – builder of Mardi Gras floats, statues, and plenty of Chick-fil-A cows – was a bit worried.
In the summer of 2016, Kern learned that Chick-fil-A changed ad agencies after 22 years with The Richards Group in Dallas, creator of the iconic “Eat Mor Chikin” campaign launched on 3-D billboards in 1995.
“I called Sean,” recalls Kern, referring to Sean Reilly, CEO of billboard company Lamar Advertising Company in Baton Rouge. “Sean, what am I gonna do with all these cows?’
“Sean said to hold onto ‘em.”
Chick-fil-A cows in storage at Kern Studios, New Orleans
In the summer of 2016, headlines with out-to-pasturemetaphors suggested that the cows were passé:
- “Are the Cows Out to Pasture at Chick-fil-A?” Kansas City ad man Phil Bressler posted August 9, 2016
- “Chicken Chain Will Rely Less on its Iconic Cows,” Ad Age, July 21, 2016
- “The Chick-fil-A cows are out to pasture,” Columbus (GA) Ledger Enquirer, July 30, 2016
But the cows are not gone. They’re multi-media, experimenting with virtual reality, and about to become bilingual.
“You’ll still see our cows up to their usual shenanigans on billboards,” said Suzi Yebio, Chick-fil-A’s senior manager of advertising. “Chick-fil-A’s cow placement on billboards initially put our ‘Eat Mor Chikin’ campaign on the map, so they will continue to be a presence in that medium” and other platforms.
When the Atlanta Braves moved 14 miles from Turner Field to the new Sun-Trust Park, the giant Chick-fil-A cow in the outfield moved, too, to the right-center field walkway.
In New Orleans, Kern Studios trimmed 18,000 pounds from the 40-foot cow, sending it back to Atlanta in the spring of 2017 on a truck with the hashtag #cowonthemove.
Chick-fil-A cow en route to new Braves Stadium
For the first time, Chick-fil-A bought national air time during the Grammys in February. Thirty-second TV spots, produced by McCann New York, showed cows with virtual reality goggles. The company gave away thousands of Chick-fil-A branded cardboard VR viewers.
“Don’t be surprised,” teases the Atlanta-based company, “if you see the cows even learning to speak Spanish.”
More than two decades ago – facing better-known competitors with bigger ad budgets, Chick-fil-A sought to break through via billboards.
Early attempts were inspired in part by Bart Simpson’s motto “Don’t Have a Cow.” A separate ad design featured a ladder on an almost finished Chick-fil-A billboard with the inscription: “Boss. Got Hungry, Back Soon.”
Merging these concepts, in 1995, Chick-fil-A put 3-D cows on billboard catwalks with a misspelled plea of self-preservation: “Eat Mor Chikin.”
“Fans of the chicken chain fell in love from the moment they saw that first cow duo painting its first sign,” said Ad Week. “No other fast-food chain had created anything remotely similar.”
In the competitive restaurant industry, Chick-fil-A scores high in employee politeness and per-store revenue (its restaurants are open six days a week). Congressman David Scott, D-GA, whose district includes its headquarters, refers to Chick-fil-A as a blue-chip company.
Hall of Fame
The cows’ message spread to other outdoor-ad formats such as wall signs, water towers, and foul poles at the Houston Astros’ stadium.
The award-winning campaign was inducted into the outdoor advertising hall of fame in 2006 and added to the Madison Avenue Advertising Walk of Fame the following year.
This year, Chick-fil-A’s “Cow Appreciation Day” is July 11, when customers dressed like cows get a free meal.
Like Barry Kern in New Orleans, many worried about the cows’ fate, prompting Chick-fil-A to post this statement on its website under “frequently asked questions:”
Q. Why is Chick-fil-A still doing Cow Appreciation Day if they parted ways with the cows’ ad agency? I heard the cows might go away. Is this true?
A. The cows aren’t going anywhere and will remain an essential part of our brand and advertising.