While it may have morphed into a national, political and ideological battle, US fast food firm Chick-fil-A's stance against same sex marriage is costing it dear in terms of brand loyalty.
A survey by pollsters YouGov reveals that the food chain's brand approval ratings have plummeted following the row over COO Dan Cathy's comments to a Baptist newspaper that Chick-fil-A was opposed to gay marriage, backing this up with the opinion that those who support it are "inviting God's judgement on our nation".
Those comments in turn led to further revelations over the firms regular donations to right wing and religious fundamentalist organisations with a track-record of opposing same sex equality and promoting a 'cure' for homosexuality.
While the firm has attempted to back away from Cathy's comments, stating that it will leave the gay marriage debate to politicians, his words have provoked a fire storm of protest and are now clearly damaging the firm's market standing.
Prior to the Cathy interview being published, Chick-fil-A had a Top National Quick Service Restaurant Sector Index score of 65, well above the average score of 46.
Last week that score had fallen to 39 - a 26 point drop.
The Index score is an average of key scores measuring quality, impression, value, reputation, satisfaction and willingness to recommend. All measurements were filtered for adults 18+ who have eaten fast food in the past month.
The drop in favour is reflected right across the US. In the South, Chick-fil-A fell from a stronghold score of 80 on July 16th to 44 while the biggest drop - a massive 41 points - took place in the Northeast, where it went from 76 to 35.
Only in the Midwest 'Bible Belt' was the trend bucked with chicken burger fans there actually boosting their approval from a 45 score to a 70 over the 48 hours after the interview was published. That number has since returned to 45, suggesting perhaps that the fillet fans are fickle.
But overall the message seems to be: Don't take on the pink dollar. "The business world has seen what happens when an organisation supports the LGBT community - which is that the LGBT community and its allies will support it," said Aaron McQuade, director of News and Field Media at GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). "Now we have empirical proof of what happens when a company rejects the LGBT community."
But the brand damage to Chick-fil-A has been too substantial for it just to be a gay protest. It's a more widespread issue, reckons influential brand marketing guru Patrick T. Davis, CEO of Davis Brand Capital in a blog posting in which he suggests that it is Chick-fil-A's lack of transparency that is hurting the firm with the wider audience. "Chick-fil-A pretended to be something it is not. That is an unforgivable sin in today's transparent marketplace," he argues.
"As a brand strategist with 20 years of Fortune 100 experience, I have had the great honour of helping to build two of America's superstar successes in the fast-casual category. Both companies were unfailingly dedicated to transparency in their mission and operations, and both genuinely respected every consumer or group. There was never any marketing 'slight of hand' like the one separating Chick-fil-A's friendly public image from its judgmental executive views. Chick-fil-A's marketing approach, like much of the rest of the company, seems stuck in the 1950s."
He adds: "While Chick-fil-A continues to fumble its public relations, the consumer now knows the company's version of 'Christian' values is unkind, unloving, and unaccepting - in fact, un-Christian. Cathy and his old-fashioned organisation don't seem up to dealing with the modern, transparent, informed world on this one: The internet spins out images putting the cows into the service of the Westboro Baptist Church' hate rhetoric, and cities from Boston to Philadelphia are telling the company to forget about operations in those locations known for the fundamentals of American equality."
Meanwhile yesterday was Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day - a stunt dreamt up by media-hungry failed Republican Presidential candidate and Fox News commentator Mick Huckabee. His goal was simple: to get Americans to help those who honour “the Godly values we espouse by simply showing up and eating at Chick-fil-A on Wednesday, August 1.”
But he couldn't help but ramp up the rhetoric as he tried to agitate his supporters. It was, he said, necessary to defend Chick-fil-A against “vicious hate speech and intolerant bigotry from the left.”
Sure enough, supporters did indeed turn up at Chick-fil-A outlets, many conducting impromptu prayer meetings as they waited for their chicken burgers and waffle fries to be served up.
But there was one notable party who seemed less than comfortable with all this however: Chick-fil-A itself which sought to distance itself once again. “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day was not created by Chick-fil-A. We appreciate all of our customers and are glad to serve them at any time. Our goal is simple: to provide great food, genuine hospitality and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A,” said Steve Robinson, executive vice president marketing.
There also appears to be a concerted attempt by Chick-fil-A to close down the debate by refusing to comment. US reporters seeking reaction from local Chick-fil-A franchise owners were told that the media would need to talk to headquarters - and headquarters was saying nothing other than Robinson's statement.
In some respects this might be a sensible move if it puts paid to the embarassingly clumsy attempts by some franchise owners earlier in the week to deal with the crisis by earnestly reassuring reporters that gay people were actually allowed to come into Chick-fil-A and would be served with a burger. This, said one, was proof that there was no discrimination. It was terrifyingly close to 'back of the bus' territory...
It's almost possible to have a brief twinge of sympathy for the beleagured firm as it finds itself hijacked by right wing US politicians on the make - Sarah Palin reckons this is about Cathy being crucified, perhaps not the best expression to use - and fundamentalist religious lobbyists with ideological battles to fight and which is paying a high brand damage price for its inabilty to operate effectively in a social media world.
Almost possible that is until you recall that the firm remains utterly unrepentent about its discrimatory and homophobic stance...