One of the most discussed marketing stories this week is the news that Pauls Deen’s contract will not be renewed by the Food Network. Marketers & viewers alike debated whether the network was right / wrong / justified / hateful for making that decision. It had to be a difficult decision, given that Deen is almost certainly a cash cow – no pun intended (no, really!). I have nothing to gain and no interest in joining the fray to discuss the moral positions of either Deen or the Food Network. But I do think it’s an interesting marketing and brand question. When is it time to end your partnership with a celebrity?
It’s tempting for marketers to align with celebrity brands, whether it means naming a sandwich after a popular athlete, getting a Hollywood darling to wear your jeans, or actually doing commercials to endorse your product. What would Nike be today if they’d never signed Michael Jordan? OK they’d still be huge, but for a generation he was the talking breathing symbol of the Nike brand, much more than the swish.
So how do you know if a celebrity is right for your brand? It really comes down to the basics of brand strategy – how well do they fit your brand essence and values? How are they likely to further your brand mission and vision? This of course assumes that you’ve taken the time to define these critical strategic guideposts. And how will they help you accomplish your business objectives?
Whole books have been written on how to leverage celebrities effectively, and there are enough stories of endorsements gone bad to fill a library. What do you do when your celebrity’s evil side is suddenly revealed – he’s arrested for wife abuse, or his steroid use is discovered? or she not only refuses to wear your clothing brand, but wears your competitor’s?
The situation is a little different for the Food Network, which by its very nature is mostly a compilation of celebrity chef brands. Their own brand is about “connecting viewers to the power & joy of food.” According to their website, the network “strives to be viewers’ best friend in food and is committed to leading by teaching, inspiring and empowering through its talent and expertise.” Sounds like a pretty good brand mission. So it’s easy to see how Paula Deen was a perfect fit – she’s that friend who tells you “aw c’mon, honey, have a lil treat!” and never made you feel guilty about not eating more healthy foods. She made it easy for you to satisfy your family’s cravings for fat & sugar. OK, so she might not be helping combat that pesky obesity epidemic. Everything in moderation – except, of course for the part about accomplishing their business objectives (and by all accounts she was doing a great job there).
So where did it all go wrong? When it came to light that Deen had made racist comments, her “inspire and empower” points took a big hit. The Food Network’s challenge is to weigh the pros & cons of signing a chef in the first place, then to know when the pros stop outweighing the cons. Their business objective is to sell advertising. As numerous advertisers started deciding that Deen was no longer a fit for their brands, the network’s business objective started taking a big hit as well. That would seem to be the real decision point. Let’s face it, the network created her celebrity. It’s highly unlikely that they didn’t have fairly clear insight to her character and behavior when they did. They had no high-minded moral issue with the nutritional profile of her recipes, even after we learned that her delicious diet had contributed to her Type 2 Diabetes. So it seems clear that what really motivated the network to dump Deen was that their advertisers were dumping her.
The whole thing makes me feel a bit cynical, really. A celebrity created out of pure profit motives, who then falls from grace only because her behavior begins to negatively impact profits. Marketing can be a more honorable profession, but I don’t think honor came into play much in this story.