We’ve all read the headlines lambasting Paula Deen for her recent, shall we say, media missteps. Missteps that cost her not only her contract with The Food Network but also partnerships with Target, Walmart, and Smithfield Foods.
It’s a controversy that’s no doubt damaging to her brand — and potentially debilitating. Her quick-shift messaging strategy seems to have called her credibility into question more than it’s helped to clear her name.
During her deposition, she seemingly casually admits to using racial slurs more than once, though acknowledges that it’s not a word that people “use as time goes on.” In her first apology, she begs for the audience’s forgiveness for the mistakes she made, but the video is edited three times — what was cut? In her second apology, she takes a more defensive stance, saying that the press has her all wrong, and that everybody, in her opinion, is equal. Then, later, in an interview with Matt Lauer, she admits to using the “n word,” but only once in her lifetime.
She shows what appears to be genuine emotion at every step, but lacks the consistency to back it. And it’s consistency — for both individuals and brands — even if the truth isn’t pretty, that often can mean the difference between a mistake people can forgive and one they’ll never let you forget.
Even so, thousands of fans have come to her defense on social media and at her restaurants, but a full comeback would require not only a new approach to messaging, but also a complete rebrand. She might have a chance if she abandons the narrative that has become interwoven with moments like her uncomfortable livestream interview with The New York Times in 2012 in which she discussed her plantation owner grandfather and had a controversial interaction with an African American friend. If she repositions herself as a regular gal who makes comfort food, she could potentially follow Tiger Woods’ footsteps, reentering her industry with some success, but likely never reclaiming her position as America’s favorite butter-slinger (read: cultural demigod).
But what nobody seems to be talking about is how Paula’s fall from grace will affect her son, Bobby, who is also in the limelight. He’s the host of Not My Mama’s Meals on The Cooking Channel, (a Scripps Network Interactive channel, which also owns The Food Network). The show features the health-conscious Bobby giving his mom’s buttery, flaky, saucy dishes a fit-over.
He’s a Southern gentlemen living a New Yorker’s life: he’ll remake his mom’s bread pudding with whole wheat donuts from The Donut Pub or pick up handmade sausage from a butcher in Williamsburg to recreate her chili dogs. But at the show’s core is his famous mom’s brand of cooking and narrative. Not only does his food depend on hers, he certainly shares her charm, regularly shares childhood memories, features clips from her show and measures his success on her reaction when she tastes his dishes at the end of every episode.
It’s precisely that this marriage of his and her identity that makes his brand unique. He isn’t just cooking light; he’s attempting to retain the flavors and heritage of Paula Deen’s cooking while lightening up the ingredients to appeal to a more health-conscious, urban audience who craves the same comfort that her audience gets to enjoy: Three sticks of butter? Try some coconut oil plus applesauce instead.
And let’s not forget the show’s name. Not My Mama’s Meals creates intrigue while providing enough information for potential viewers to understand that they’re getting a little bit of Paula every time they tune in. From start to finish, Paula’s an indispensible component of every episode, of the brand idea itself. If her empire of heart-attack-on-a-plate dishes falls, what will he have?
So while his show will run as scheduled, for now, Bobby may have to reformat and sever ties within the show to ensure his brand has a long run regardless of his mama’s brand’s demise.
Perhaps he can shift his own messaging, playing up exploring New York City rather than perpetuating memories tied to a complicated and controversial family story. But to seem authentic and ensure the evolution is seamless, he’ll have to make the changes incrementally. It will be a test of how strong a brand he’s created on his own, because there’s no doubt that being Paula Deen’s son has been key to his success.
And the name of the show? It could still work, because even if he isn’t remaking Paula’s dishes, the show’s name signals a departure from the fare he grew up with. But we wouldn’t be surprised if The Cooking Channel eventually gives him a new show and a new start altogether.
Do you think Bobby’s brand is strong enough to stand the test of time without his mama’s name to back it? Let us know in the comments below.
Jennifer Vano is a Consultant in Verbal Identity for Interbrand New York.