Rachael Ray: branding goddess?

Rachael_ray Did Rachael Ray sneak up on you?

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.

16 thoughts on “Rachael Ray: branding goddess?

  1. Max Kalehoff

    No matter all the complements you give to Rachel Ray, she still is rooted in the Food Network style of television programming. And that style of programming seems to borrow everything from the playbook of video pornography. It plays into our emotions and senses…the camera shots, the angles, the bubbling and oozinig…the “MMMMM, that tastes so good!” remarks. Plus Rachel Ray is very attractive, in the eyes of many guys.

    There was a great Harper’s report that NPR’s On The Media did about a year ago, where they go into this very real coincidence (http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/transcripts_100705_porn.html):

    BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s been almost 12 years since an upstart cable channel called The Food Network first went on the air, and in that time a host of celebrity chefs from Emeril Lagasse to Rachael Ray have roasted, broiled and baked their way onto the American media menu and into 86 million homes. What accounts for The Food Network’s success is not necessarily the quality of the food or the service. What keeps us tuning in to yet another choreographed confection by yet another culinary star is the vision of great-looking meals. After all, we’re not actually tasting anything. We’re watching other people, more nimble than we, make it seem easy, which can be exciting, as writer Frederick Kaufman argues in the current issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Like Porn.” Frederick Kaufman joins me now on the show. Fred, welcome to On the Media.

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: Great to be here.

    BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let’s talk a little bit about the history of food on TV. I mean, most of us can remember Julia Child on PBS. I can’t think of a less pornographic host. But you say that’s not the point – at least it wasn’t in that show.

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: You know, in the old days of food television, if you talked to the producers, if you talked to the people who were involved, they were already making jokes about “it’s food porn.” The difference today is that the porniness has become more pervasive. Nobody would confuse Julia herself with a porn star. However, that leg of lamb, that big chunk of steak, that was the star, and the fetishized focus on it was clearly a pornographic focus.

    BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, for your Harper’s piece you met with a woman named Barbara Nitke, who is a photographer who worked for many years in the porn industry. In fact, you went to her home one afternoon, ordered in some Mexican food and watched The Food Network for six hours. So what did you learn about camera angles and lighting and the nuts and bolts of gastroporn?

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: Well, Barbara has been a professional in the porn industry, taking still photographs, for many years, worked on over 300 porn films. And she really gave me an education in terms of not only of the shots but in terms of the wacky, strange soundtracks – [SOUNDTRACK UP AND UNDER] – this kind of caressing camera going over the food, back and forth and up and down. One of the things that makes it extremely porny is the repetition. You’ll see the peach, and the camera going over those peaches again, then Giada, then the peach, then Giada, then the peach. And so this is very similar to how porn works.

    BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let’s talk about that Giada DeLaurentis episode where she is cooking these baked peaches. You see her using a melon baller to sort of get the pit out.

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: Yeah. One of the things Barbara Nitke points out also on show like Giada is that the sound, the incredibly overmiked sound, you can hear this kind of – the clicks and the snaps and the little crunchy edges of things. [CRUNCHES, CLICKS AND SNAPS]

    GIADA DeLAURENTIS: Let me just give my eggs a quick whisk. [CLICKING, BEATING SOUNDS] And then we’re going to add some cheese. [CLICKING SOUNDS]

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: It’s also shot very differently. It’s actually shot single-camera as opposed to a four-camera television format. And so it’s almost shot like a 35-millimeter film. You get an amazing angle on Giada, who is beautiful, and who always is wearing a very close-cut sleeveless top. And then you get the food, and then you get Giada, and then you get her fingers on the food. And oh, it’s so moist. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

    GIADA DeLAURENTIS: Mmmm! Peaches are juicy, crunchy from the amaretti cookies. The sugar’s caramelized, and it’s creamy with the whipped cream.

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: Part of the big lie of porn and part of the big lie of The Food Network is things are made to look extremely simple when in fact they’re extraordinarily complex. So, for instance, if you’re seeing something like oral sex in pornography, it looks like the easiest thing in the world, when in fact there are all sort of issues with the way the camera is low and the light is to the side. And it’s extremely difficult to actually pull this off. This is a wildly choreographed event, just as the food is wildly choreographed. And the big lie is “taste life,” have a real experience when, in fact, this is the most unreal experience.

    BROOKE GLADSTONE: “Taste life” is the motto for The Food Network.

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: Precisely. “Taste life,” as though by watching it you’re going to actually have some sort of authentic, lifelike – not even lifelike – life itself is here, as opposed to this outrageous simulacrum that’s being presented as such.

    BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, a key demographic – I found this surprising – for The Food Network is the 18-to-35-year-old male.

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: The men who like to watch.

    BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Or you call them the “can’t cook, won’t cook crowd.” Now, you’ve talked to Food Network execs. Are they consciously targeting a population that, as you say, likes to watch?

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: A predominantly male demographic is much more popular with advertisers. And many people who I’ve spoken to call it “The Emeril Network” because Emeril was the man responsible for bringing a male demographic to The Food Network. He brought in the hockey fans.

    EMERIL LAGASSE: You see that? The sugar? The butter? In goes the bananas. Oh yeah, babe. Get ’em happy right now.

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: Now, in fact, you’re seeing men in bars watching Giada; they’re watching Rachael next to the football game. And it’s almost this kind of strange surreal experience of having somebody cook for you while you’re sitting there drinking beer alone in a bar, crunching a potato chip. It’s this kind of outrageous sense of happiness and perfection given to you in this completely virtual manner.

    BROOKE GLADSTONE: You didn’t just watch, though. When you hung out backstage at The Food Network, did you get the sense that they were deliberately setting things up to be enticing in that particular way?

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: Of course. Well, you know, one of the things that’s so interesting is the, the whole notion of “the food swap” in terms of the enticing, which is that, you know, they’ll make an apple pie on stage but, in fact, in The Food Network kitchens they’re making five or six or seven apple pies, and the one that looks the best is the one that they’re going to use. And they’re going to bring it out, and it’s going to be sizzling and trickling cheese and juices. And absolutely, and it’s the swap. And, of course, this comes, this comes right out of porn. I mean, the whole notion of the swap is necessary in classic porn filmmaking. You need to have a certain kind of shot which can only happen a few hours after [LAUGHS] another kind of shot, and so you wait. Then you make your “sex swap” as opposed to your “food swap.”

    BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s talk about those main characters, then, that populate The Food Channel. You said that Emeril Lagasse essentially made it safe for men to watch food, and then once there, they got characters like Giada DeLaurentis and Rachael Ray and –

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: Tyler Florence, of course, the –


    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: – the man who rescues the desperate housewives across the nation.

    BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah. Now, in that program, this guy named Tyler goes into the houses of damsels in distress, you say – [OVERTALK]

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: That’s right.

    BROOKE GLADSTONE: – and helps them cook?

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: She needs her cookies. She must have her cookies. And Tyler will come in and rescue her and, and make the cookies for her. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

    TYLER FLORENCE: Hey, everybody. I’m Tyler Florence. Welcome back to Food 911. I’m hanging out with Julia. And the next thing we’re going to make, I’m calling it My Big Fat Chocolate Chip Cookie. Okay, I said it. We’re going to make the biggest chocolate chip cookie you’ve ever seen. It’s going to be about like – like – like that.

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: And there’s always this bizarre vibe. It’s – it’s the pizza man in the porn film, and there’s always the sense that when it’s over, if the husband doesn’t get home in time, there’s going to be a quickie.

    BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Let’s talk about Iron Chef. Iron Chef, you suggest, is the kind of S&M of The Food Channel.

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: Iron Chef is the classic fetish porn film. Welcome to the Dungeon, with this billowing smoke.


    ALTON BROWN: Making their ascent in the kitchen stadium and beginning a new chapter in the Gourmet Academy’s history, the invincible men of culinary skills.

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: And then you have this great dominator character who’s in this kind of wild brocaded outfit with the black leather glove. And then comes the strange ingredient from the ceiling. It’s squid. It’s living squid. And you have the dominators taking this submissive food and transforming it into something beautiful. In other words, the classic plot in a dom-sub fetish porn film is you have a transformation of a character from a meek little thing or an ugly little thing into a gorgeous, beautiful, wrapped-up, zipped-up thing. And here what you have in food is you have this disgusting thing, like living, writhing squid, that’s turned into this highly refined and highly mediated squid risotto.

    BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Okay. So where does Giada DeLaurentis and, say, Rachael Ray fit into this constellation of culinary stars?

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: Well, Rachael Ray, you know, everybody says is “the girl next door.” Rachael Ray is perky, smiley, next-door-neighbor sex.

    RACHAEL RAY: Lentils poof up big when you cook ’em. They just suck up all the liquid as they get nice and tender. I gotta take a quick break. [START MUSIC] I’m just gonna keep cookin’ up something super good for dinner, and I’ll meet you right back here.

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: She’s the girl who won’t say no. Giada DeLaurentis is more of the exotic Glamazon, the Ginger to Rachael Ray’s Mary Ann, so to speak.

    BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now along with your observations about The Food Network, you presented a thesis about the way that we receive information, a brain in the gut versus a brain in the head. Can you parse this out for me?

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: Well, Michael Gershon is – up at Columbia University, wrote a book about the brain in the gut. There are a hundred million neurons in our gut, which is more than the spinal cord and the brain combined. He says that, in fact, when we have a gut reaction it’s giving us actual information that we should act on. It’s the brain in the gut, in fact, which governs the actions of the sphincters throughout the body. The body is controlled by these O-ring muscles all the way up and down the digestive tract. They’re in the pupils of your eyes. They’re in your heart. Of course, they’re also in your sexual organs. And so the structure of porn is very similar to the structure of food television, in that they both are made to stimulate some sort of automatic or autonomic nervous response.

    BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay Frederick, people listening to this may say, “Oh, come on, aren’t you just laying it on a little thick here? Obviously if you’re handling foodstuffs you’re going to handle things that are squishy and juicy.” Are you not – are you sure about this?

    FREDERICK KAUFMAN: You know, these are just ways of talking about a certain kind of reaction that we have when we’re watching something, a certain kind of involuntary excitement that we get. And sex is a very easy metaphor to use because everybody understands it and everybody thinks about it. I’m not so interested necessarily that, oh, it’s like sex, oh, it is sex, oh, they’re exploiting sex. I’m interested in a deeper structure of nervous response. And I’m concerned that media in general is starting to use this kind of automatic nervous response, as opposed to a more thoughtful process. And The Food Network is really paving the way. We’re seeing a lot of news structured in an equivalent fashion. In other words, you know, as Van Gordon Sauter used to say to the CNN troops, “Get the emo.” Where does the “emo” come from? The “emo” comes from the gut. What does the gut give you? The gut gives you the “wow!” And, of course, the “wow!” makes the money.

    BROOKE GLADSTONE: Frederick Kaufman, thank you very much.


  2. Matt

    “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.”

    Um…have you ever actually WATCHED FoodTV?

    While I find the previous commenter’s text to be a near-canonical example of the sort of people who demonstrate their unsatisfying sex lives by finding pornography in everything, it’s not exactly wrong when pointing out that the phenomena ascribed to Ms Ray are far from unique to her. She examplifies what food shows _are_ nowadays.

  3. John Dodds

    Not sure I agree with you on this one. Go back to the late 60s early 70s and you find The Galloping Gourmet. Graham Kerr had international success with an innuendo-laden cooking show that built to a climactic seduction meal with a member of the audience. It was all about where the food would take you and targetted at housewives. The food as icon shows, I would argue were much more a product of the 90s.

  4. Brian Moore

    Accurate or not, that interview was hilarious, especially as someone who has Rachael Ray and the rest of the Food Network forcibly inflicted on me by my significant othe.

  5. steve

    The part I don’t get is the Unique Selling Proposition argument. Rachel Ray isn’t selling food–she’s selling the experience of watching her show. A food company can’t do that. If I’m selling frozen peas, and I say “Mmmm, frozen peas bring the family together and create wonderful warm memories,” the problem is that that’s true of all my competitors’ frozen pea offerings, too. You still need a USP of some sort to escape the “dour struggle for equality.”

    You could try to establish a stronger, or different, mental association through advertising and packaging (itself a form of USP in my opinion, but that’s just semantic quibbling), but I submit that that’s going to be pretty tough with frozen peas. Could there be a social identification pitch–“people like Rachel Ray prefer our peas?” I think I’d rather try to make peas that are physically better and then convince customers of that.

  6. Abby

    i was looking for a kitchen surplus wanted to get cheap forks and spoons in bulk and i came acrossed this tastless websitabout rachel i love you rachel and i love that you have a smile on your face and that you talk about your family it makes me love you more just remember that those bad talking you are just sad and your fans LOVE LOVE LOVE YOU AND I WILL BUY YOUR EVOO!!! yum-o when it comes out love you much your fan of 30mm and 40$ a day abby benitez 6232566691

  7. J

    Heaven only by itself holds more beauty. How could anything be so intensly beautiful. I recognize all that you are and will be. If all that will be comes to play then we must perservere, your beauty is eternal , we will meet someday and that must suffice. I will meet you one day and will introduce myself as a fellow genius, both of a different nature, but my sincerity not to be doubted, you are truly as beautiful as any that i have seen. j

  8. j

    Oh to be the first to comment on my own thoughts. Such beauty has presented itself so few times in history, it is a gift that should be cherished and observed for what it truly is. Very few people in history have both the beauty and pinache to leave a lasting impression on the world. Does your present mate believe so? If he does then congrats.. you are appreciated for the beauty that you are and that you possess, however I will stand in the background and observe asmuch as I can. perhaps things will work out for us, as opposed to your current self serving mate, he shalnt have the financial power that i will one day yield… to post at a future date. goodbye for now oh brunette Goddess…..

  9. gloria

    everyone says i look like you and sound like you to atee. no matter where i go everyone says to me, do you know who you remind me of rachel ray, i dont know if i do but its getting to the point when they say it i answer rachel ray.i would love to meet you and see what you think.beside the fact i think you are an amazing women,you can do so many things and still seem to be so organized. I have three children and live in syosset ny. I would love to get some tipps from you. sincerely, gloria concannon.

  10. Theresa Berry

    HI: I got the sample of MaquiBerry clear and I love it but I can’t find any place that sells it.can you help me?

  11. Sue Glass

    Who ever did R’s new look should be shot. She looks like an old fat Italian Momma with hoop ear rings and short dark hair. Too far from the sun kissed long hair and slimmer bod. I cannot watch her like this any more.

  12. amy

    I love to bake however with me working at Narconon drug rehab facility and being a single mother I have very little time to bake. If anyone has any ideas on quick cookie ideas let me know.

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