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The Magnetic Celebrity Chef: Part 2

Posted by: Carrie Wasterlain on December 20, 2012

As explored in Part 1 of this look at celebrity chef brands, this group of personal brands is growing at a mind-boggling rate thanks to the human connection these chefs are able to create with their fans. Cookbooks, talk shows and endorsements are just some of the signs that the celebrity chef is no longer confined to the TV studio kitchen.

Mario Batali of Iron Chef America and PBS’ Spain… on the Road Again fame has, in addition to a number of award-winning restaurants, found success with his enterprise Eataly, which consumes a building the size of a full city block that used to house the New York Toy Center. Giada de Laurentis, the subject of Part 1, has recently included endorsing hair products to her résumé, flaunting her luscious locks in Clairol commercials.

As personal chef brand empires continue to grow, are they at risk of losing their authenticity? Will they dilute that personal touch that was once the raison d'être for their popularity?

Rachael Ray is a great example of just how extended these celebrity chef brands have become. Ray got her start teaching 30-minute cooking lessons to reluctant locals at an Albany market. That gig transitioned into a news segment on her local TV station.

Not long after, Rachael Ray was offered a 30-minute slot on the Food Network, based on the theme of cooking simple and quick “30-Minute Meals” – and the premise of her brand was born. Since then, Ray has published more than a dozen “30-Minute Meal” cookbooks, hosted her own talk show (an “Oprah”-type show in which food plays a small role), built a brand of dog food, served as spokesperson for Dunkin Donuts, partnered with Ziploc to create the “Great American FreshOver Project,” founded a magazine – the list continues.

According to Forbes, Ray rakes in just under $20 million a year. So what’s the ingredient behind her success? The answer is straightforward: as Ray’s empire has continued to grow, she’s leveraged her brand as a way to ensure her products have a purpose, her “personality” stays intact and each “brand extension” ties back to a consistent bottom line.

Purposeful Products

Rachel RayRay stands out as a celebrity chef who produces products that are both well made and born of stories and characteristics unique to her. Her range of offerings continues to increase, but every product has a clear place and purpose within the context of the Rachael Ray brand.

Her “E-V-O-O” olive oil and branded “Garbage Bowl,” for instance, are both extensions of signature phrases she’s coined in her show (E-V-O-O stands for “extra virgin olive oil,” while the “garbage bowl” is a container she fills with discards while cooking to make for quicker cleanup), and her oval-shaped pasta pots are designed to fit side-by- side on the stove for easy emptying. These products signify “little pieces” of “Rachael.” Their names are similarly thoughtful.

From the “Oven Lovin” bakeware set to the “Lazy Spoon and Ladle” duo to the “Lasagna Lover” tray, Ray's product names all pack a “Rachael Ray” punch. These offerings go beyond functionality; they reinforce the attributes of her brands as down-to-earth and efficient.

Personality Infusion

Some viewers balk at her catchphrases (E-V-O-O, “Sammies,” “Choup”) and her anti-“foodie” perspective. Whether you’re a fan of Ray-isms like “WOAH, how good does THIS look?” or not, Ray’s personality is the lynchpin to her success, and she hasn’t let the growth of her brand dilute it.

Ray has carved out a unique personality niche for herself. Known for her characteristic abbreviations, bubbly excitement and down-home charisma, her colorful disposition even carries through, quite literally, to her funky, bright orange cookware line. Ray leverages this identity both on- and off-screen, inserting it into every product she launches and everything she does.

Consistent Identity

Some might raise their eyebrows at Ray’s potpourri of products and endorsements; she isn’t shy about capitalizing on merchandising partnerships, and has even explored opportunities that go beyond the realm of food. But so far, Ray has pulled it off, because she’s ensured these brand “extensions” link back to a deliberate bottom line.

NutrishFor example, her introduction of “Nutrish” dog food, which donates its proceeds to animal welfare, supports her declared passion for pups and dedication to raising awareness. The brand is based off the model for her non-profit organization “Yum-O!,” which helps children and families learn about nutrition.

Her endorsement of Dunkin Donuts supported healthier drinks – which reinforces her “everything in moderation” perspective. Above all, the foundation upon which her brand was built – “30-minute meals” – continues to be at the heart of her brand identity, remaining the centerpiece for recipe ideas, cookbook series and everything else she touches. Her original show has endured throughout the last decade of her brand expansion – further demonstrating the strength of her brand’s foundation.

Personal brands can learn a lot from Ray, who proves that growing doesn’t necessarily lead to dilution. If these brands are going to expand – to test value beyond their original product -- they need to ensure their anchor brand is strong enough to support the same quality, authenticity and identity. Ray will have to continue to tread lightly as she gets farther away from food and closer to becoming a general lifestyle brand with items such as her recent accessories line.

Maintaining credibility and authenticity is a concern, but so far Rachael Ray’s powerhouse brand has retained a focused power that’s worthy of recognition. Her 2.5 million talk show viewers and product consumers certainly think so.

Carrie Wasterlain is an Associate, Verbal Identity at Interbrand New York.

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