I thought I knew day-time television. Suddenly, her name was everywhere.
Here are 5 things I learned about Rachael Ray:
1) She is 38 years old. She was raised in upstate New York in an Italian-American family. She published her first book, 30 Minute Meals, in 1998 and started her first TV show, 30 Minute Meals in 2001. (She came up fast.)
2) She is now the author of 11 books, a magazine Every Day With Rachael Ray, and her own TV program, Rachael Ray, which launched September 18, 2006. (She came up prodigiously.)
3) Rachael Ray’s approach to food is peppy and practical. She doesn’t do finnicky or precious. She doesn’t do baking. This has earned her the devotion of contemporary homemakers, and the loathing of foodies who see her as an enemy of the new food culture. (She came up contra-trend. She rose while a new approach to food was colonizing the American consciousness: the "slow food," Chez Panisse, Saveur Magazine, celebrity chef, high-end restaurant, connoisseurship trend.)
4) Stylistically, Rachael Ray is the anti-Martha. Her website calls her "TV’s most down-to-earth and relatable star." Where Martha Stewart was cool, authoritative, self possessed, as if from the manor born, Rachael Ray is warm, improvisational, unassuming, and just folks. If Martha Stewart was ceremonial perfection to home making, Rachael Ray captures the "close enough is good enough" spirit that animates most American households. (Contra-trend meets contra-snootiness, Rachael Ray is a celebrity in that democratic, "America’s sweetheart," tradition.)
5) Rachael Ray is not only peppy but peppery. The "adorable" Rachael is frequently accompanied by a Rachael who lets fly with sexual innuendo, little digs, and frank observations. "Sweetness and light" meets "nobody’s fool." (Ray builds her celebrity out of mixed signals, in this case, the sweet and the savory.)
So Rachael came up fast, prodigiously, contra-trend, contra-snootiness, and she came up with a balanced brand-celebrity message. And none of this interests us.
What interests is what Rachael Ray can teach us about branding.
Most cooking shows are about food. They focus on recipes, ingredients, preparation, things cooking, things cooked. The money shot? That overhead camera that stares down onto simmering shallots and bubbling stews.
Rachael Ray is interested in what food becomes, how food turns into meals, social occasions, brimming kitchens, people communing, families eating…and talking…and being a family. This enterprise begins with food and moves briskly on to the emotional, social, and cultural benefits that food gives us.
Sound familiar? In the early days of marketing, we were encouraged to think of products and brands in terms of Unique Selling Propositions (USPs). What we were selling was the physical property and benefit of the product. In the food category, it was about being creamier, meatier, sweeter, flakier, richer, tastier, etc. In the pre-Rachael era, the food category was about food.
Some marketers climbed Mazlow’s hierachy in search of the higher benefits of food brands. But always there was someone on the marketing team prepared to say, "keep it simple, stupid, this brand has to be about the product benefit." The USP didn’t keep it simple. It kept it stupid.
In the post-Rachael era, a new approach emerges. Now we want to sell what food turns into, the meals, the social occasions, the brimming kitchens, people communing, families eating..and talking…and being a family. And from this point of view, the consumer is not a cook, she is a very different kind of problem server. Here is a women who is called upon to manage a family that is bulging with highly individual individuals, diverse enthusiasms, and conflicting schedules. (And she must do this at the very moment that every health care professional is insisting on less fat, less sugar, less salt, the very building blocks of food that brings people to take and turns them into families.) This woman needs a bigger and richer value proposition that the USP. This woman needs ways to imagine and stage the family that make it easy to think and do this thing called a family.
The new approach in marketing must be more Rachael-like. We want to see how the brand invests food with meanings that convert to the things that Moms most care about, animated kids, engaged dads, and vivid table talk. This consumer wants food that turns into a "meal," meals that turn into "events," events that turn into a "family." USPs? Please.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone could reinvent the cooking show. It’s still larger to imagine that anyone should have found a way to get below the "receipe" approach to cooking and into the real emotional, social and cultural aspects of food. But Rachael Ray did. She turned her persona into a celebration of why food matters.
When does marketing catch up?
The Rachael Ray Show website here.
Anonymous. n.d., Rachael Ray 101. The Food Network. here.
Anonymous. 2006. Stupid Questions: This week with Rachael Ray. Entertainment Weekly. October 20, 2006, p. 90.
Pellettieri, Jill Hunter. 2005. Rachael Ray: Why Good Snobs Should Quit Picking on Her. Slate.com, July 13, 2005. here.