Paula Deen made headlines in January when she announced that she had type 2 Diabetes. She incurred the wrath of many, most notably Anthony Bourdain, who tweeted this not-so-subtle dig:

Deen had been diagnosed three years ago yet continued to promote her indulgent, unhealthy recipes while simultaneously keeping her diagnosis hidden under the lid of the butter dish. Also, her public announcement coincided much too suspiciously with her new role as spokeswoman for drug maker Novo Nordisk. Many people objected that the butter-loving Southern matriarch was disclosing her Diabetes diagnosis only because she had secured a hefty paycheck from the drug company.

Six months later, Paula Deen is now on the cover of People magazine, proclaiming her 30-pound weight loss to the world. After the cover was released, the Today show posted this question on their Facebook wall:

The response from Today show Facebook fans was varied. Some people said they love Paula and always will and congratulated her on her strides towards health, but several blasted her for withholding her diagnosis and profiting by contributing to the American obesity epidemic. This response caught my attention:

I have a problem with this comment, because of this sentence: “She’s a woman like the rest of us, not a ‘brand’.” Paula Deen is a brand, and I would go so far as to argue that Paula Deen the woman has become inextricably linked to Paula Deen the brand. In fact, the identities this commenter ascribes to Paula (“a successful mama, wife, cook, restaurateur, etc.”) are the very identities Paula uses to market her brand. She has built her entire professional identity on the image of a drawling, Georgian, easy-going mother, wife, and cook who makes recipes that appeal to the everyman and everywoman of America.

Branding Basics

The Paula Deen brand that has been decades in the making is now facing some difficulties simply because the brand is so attached to Paula’s identity. To use a cooking metaphor: the brand and the woman aren’t as easily separated as oil and water. They go together like…well, like Paula Deen and butter.

Sometimes, a brand becomes associated with a person, as is the case with celebrity endorsements. Take Dannon Activia Yogurt: through the notorious commercials that have been mocked on SNL, Jamie Lee Curtis has become the face of this yogurt.

Brand à person

But, sometimes a person becomes a brand. Like Paula Deen, Martha Stewart (groan), or Kim Kardashian (double groan).These people are marketable entities in and of themselves, and any product to which they attach their names becomes a brand extension. For example, Martha Stewart became a household name and then released her own line of wine and craft products.

Person à brand

Paula Deen’s Sticky Marketing Situation

Because Paula Deen is a person who has become a brand, any health changes related to food and weight (type 2 Diabetes, weight loss, weight gain, etc.) get people talking about the way in which these changes will impact her brand. The queen of Southern cooking is now between a rock and a hard place (or, to put it in cuisine terms, between a spinach leaf and a sugar-loaded sweet tea), and here’s why. Paula Deen announces she has Diabetes, and of course the press lambasts her. But, it also raises doubts in the minds of consumers, the people who make or break her success. Obviously, it makes Paula Deen recipes synonymous with the word “unhealthy,” and therefore anyone who is trying to eat healthy or shed pounds might be disinclined to use these recipes. But also, all of us imbue food with meaning and symbolism. We associate food with events, emotions, and people. The word “birthday” conjures up images of cake; we think of hot chocolate during the winter and ice cream during the summer. Because of this food-feelings connection, Paula Deen’s recipes aren’t just about food; they’re also about the emotions they engender. The recipes symbolized warmth, comfort, and contentment, and maybe they still represent those things to some people, but to many they now also symbolize unhealthiness. This might cause people to think twice before concocting a Deen creation, and these doubts are what can erode her brand slowly but surely.

Banning Buttah and Revising the Brand

Now, Paula Deen has lost 30 pounds! She is becoming healthier, but she’s  going to face branding problems. In the Today show’s coverage of Paula Deen, one person commented that she “has her work cut out for her when it comes to rethinking her brand.” I think this comment is spot on. According to The Huffington Post, when Nancy O’Dell toured Paula’s Savannah, Georgia, home in a June 14th episode of the HGTV show Celebrities at Home, Paula said she doesn’t want people to associate her name with butter anymore. “When you hear the name Paula Deen,” she said, “I want you to think of the word ‘hope.’” I see a brand revision on the Georgia horizon. Paula Deen has built an extremely profitable culinary empire that has nationwide name recognition on decadent Southern comfort food, the hallmark of which is butter. Word association is a powerful thing, and Paula can’t reverse the Deen-butter association in the public mind simply because she wants to. If Paula really wants to change the way in which the public perceives her, she has to put a great deal of effort into rebranding. How is her brand revision progressing so far? And what does Paula Deen reveal about brand revision in general? 

Targeting an Audience

Marketing is all about targeting and catering to a specific audience. Keeping this in mind, there are a few things that could result from her new, healthier ways:

  1. Paula could inspire her existing audience to become healthier.
  2. When she starts developing healthy recipes, Paula could lose those members of her audience who have no interest in healthy recipes.
  3. Paula could gain a new following of people who are interested in healthy recipes.

Yet, there is a problem with each of these. The problems Paula faces evidence why brand transformations are so difficult, and they also reveal the basic tenets of building and maintaining a brand.

Brands Fulfill a Niche

Paula has established a very specific niche for herself; she is billed as the outrageous, quirky, fun “Queen of Southern Cuisine.” Transforming herself from butter’s number one fan to someone who swaps fried chicken for salads is difficult from a marketing and branding perspective. Plus, there is a plethora of celebrity chefs who are already established as creators of healthy, nutritious recipes (Ellie Krieger, who is also on the Food Network, for one.) If Paula enters this field, she will be competing with other cooks, whereas with her butter-laden recipes, she has no competition, because these recipes are uniquely her. Paula is the epitome of Southern comfort. In the Today show’s coverage, they cut to shot of Paula Deen holding a dish of mac and cheese saying “we’re gonna wrap it in bacon and deep fry it!” That statement is the quintessential Paula: a bacon-happy, butter-happy, fry-happy cook! Now she has to ditch a decades-in-the-making niche and create a new one (or edge into one that has already been created).

Branding Needs to Be Consistent

The People magazine cover has been out for almost 2 weeks, and the internet is abuzz with Paula Deen chatter. At the moment, the Paula Deen brand lacks consistency.

Take Paula’s Pinterest account. It’s pretty confusing and incoherent. There are boards for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day recipes (Paula announced her Diabetes diagnosis in January, so I’m assuming these boards were created after she went public). Both of these boards have a recipe for cinnamon rolls, which has butter in the dough, in the filling, and in the glaze. Also, her Memorial Day board (again, because this holiday falls after January, I’m assuming this board was created after Paula’s announcement) features a recipe for a Pecan Burger, a burger with butter and a bacon wrapping. Yet, amongst these are healthy recipes: there is a “Spring Salads” board and a board entitled “Paula’s Life,” which features a green smoothie and pictures of Paula walking, complete with the caption, “Heading in the Right Direction.” I don’t think Paula’s Pinterest has to feature only bacon and frying oil-heavy recipes or only green smoothies, but having both when Paula has never set a current, clear branding strategy is confusing. To complicate this even further, Paula’s website features foods like fried cheesecake, while the Novo Nordisk website advertises “delicious diabetes-friendly meals” created by Paula herself. All of these contradictions beg the question, “What does Paula stand for?” Is she healthy? Is she not healthy? Branding should make a statement, not raise a question.

Brand Extensions: Don’t Conflict; Co-Exist!

Another problem Paula faces is the fact that her branding is complicated by her sons’ branding. Jamie and Bobby Deen make lighter versions of their mom’s recipes.

Bobby Deen even has a show called Not My Mama’s Meals. Offering lighter versions of Paula original recipes seems smart, because it allows the Deen Bros. to appeal to a different audience than the one that their mother reaches while still keeping the Deen name in people’s minds. It also allows people to enjoy comfort food without all of the guilt. But, I think there is a major flaw in a show like Not My Mama’s Meals. The title alone implies that there is something wrong with Bobby’s “mama’s” meals (and many would argue that there is in fact something wrong with deep fried stuffing on a stick), but there are a lot of people who think Paula’s recipes are fine, as evidenced in the culinary empire she has built. Also, the fact that the Deen Bros. create nutritious food while their mother makes food for the inner butter lover within all of us seems to pit Paula against her sons. It makes them competitors. Consider her “Lighter Recipes” Pinterest board: on this board, only 4 out of 61 pins are Paula’s original recipes. The rest are recipes from the Deen Bros. or recipes entitled “Bobby lightens it up.” The fact that 1/15 of these recipes come from Paula proves that her food and the word “well-being” don’t exactly match. If she wants to dissociate herself from the word “butter,” this isn’t helping. It also suggests that she promotes an unbalanced lifestyle, while her sons exemplify health and sound nutrition. This clash of cooking methods could be detrimental from a marketing and branding perspective, because while it might seem that Paula and her sons are separate brands, Bobby and Jamie Deen are actually extensions of the Paula Deen brand. If I’m describing Bobby Deen to someone who has never heard of him, one of the first ways I’ll identify him is by saying, “He’s Paula Deen’s son.” For better or worse, Paula is part of Bobby’s identity. He would not even have a show or book without his mother. With all of the bad press Paula has been getting recently, she needs to be cast in a favorable light, and her sons aren’t helping this effort.

Brands Need to Look Like the Genuine Article

Paula is changing her ways. The article in People states, “so instead of regular meals with her favorite trigger foods (so long, mashed potatoes), the Southern chef has developed a new-found love for Greek salads and baked fish.” Also, when Paula appeared on the June 27 episode of The Chew, she said that she fills her plate with salad and has a silver-dollar sized portion of carbs. She has teamed up with the maker of a diabetic drug. But, she promotes deep-fried recipes on Pinterest. Speaking out about healthy eating while simultaneously pinning pictures of various types of Gooey Butter cake seems disingenuous. Is Paula talking out of both sides of her mouth? When brands are candid and transparent, they inspire trust. When they appear dishonest, they raise doubts.

Can Brands Have It All?

Paula Deen’s branding dilemma raises a question that is relevant to all brands: can you appeal to everyone? Can Paula market her traditional recipes and her new healthy recipes, thereby appealing to her original fan base and a new fan base that is interested in weight loss and/or healthy living in general? Or is trying to reach everyone too ambitious? Does she have to limit herself to one audience?

The Obligatory Butter Joke

Also, will the Paula Deen brand suffer because of the media blitzkrieg? Many other celebrity brands have survived negative press. An article on celebrity branding in Vanity Fair points out that “The Martha Stewart brand empire survived the conviction of its namesake for obstruction of justice in an insider-trading case and her jailbird status.” And judging by the comments on PaulaDeen.com, many people are still in love with Paula. Here’s a comment by what may be the best pseudonym in FoodNetwork.com history, I Love Fried Food, on a recipe for fried butter balls:

Eating a few dozen fried butter balls alone? Sounds like a good time to me.

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