Paula Deen’s Comeback Strategy

Americans loves comeback stories.  They love to see a celebrity, a politician or a business leader reach great heights and then fall only to rise again.  Think of Richard Nixon, Martha Stewart, Robert Downey, Jr., and even Drew Barrymore.  Now Paula Deen seeks to join the list fallen celebrities to make a comeback.  She recently formed a new company, Paula Deen Ventures that received between $75 million to $100 million from Najafi Cos., a private-equity company led by Jahm Najafi, who owns BMG Music Service and the Book-of-the-Month Club.  Yet she should remember, for every comeback, there is a Michael Richards, Jimmy the Greek, Michael Vick, or even Tiger Woods, who either see their career destroyed or never recover all of their previous star luster.

Paula Deen’s fall from grace is well chronicled.  In a deposition over a now dismissed lawsuit by a former employee, Deen admitted that she has used the ‘n’ word in the past and had considered a plantation style event with African-American employees dressed in anti-bellum attire.  Other employees stepped forward to make similar allegations. What made her situation worse was her ham-handed attempts at crisis communications culminating with her appearance on the Today Show where she appeared to be saying she was the victim and didn’t understand why African-Americans might be offended by the ‘n’ word.  Sponsors were quick to show her the exit, with even the Food Network who had put Deen on the map, cancelling her show.  Since then, she has taken a low profile and still retains a strong fan base.  The question is can she comeback as strong or stronger than she was before?

Simply put, Paula Deen will never be back as strong as she was prior to her scandal.  Any scandal involving a child, an animal, or race is one that a person never recovers fully from (just ask PeeWee Herman and Michael Vick).  Beyond that, she hasn’t shown sponsors that she fully understands what she did wrong – not dealing with the issue in a professional way and her brand identity as the sweet grandmother was destroyed permanently with all but her loyal fan base.

As mentioned Deen’s crisis communications efforts were abysmal.  What she should have done even before the deposition was to do an interview explaining what was going to come out and explain this was said years ago, is not who she is, and was only coming out now as part of a lawsuit, allowing herself to be in front of the story and shape the narrative.  Failing that, a heartfelt apology to anyone she may have offended and a strong denunciation of racism and use of the ‘n’ word was in order.  She missed all of those opportunities and even now has yet to fully offer a strong apology or show she understands why people are offended by the ‘n’ word.  She continues to play the victim.  This continues to send a signal to sponsors that she doesn’t understand the gravity of her words or race issues, will continue to be erratic in business dealings, and will have limited appeal to millenials (a coveted demographic which she had limited appeal to even before this and was yet another reason the Food Network cut ties with her).  While some sponsors will sign her up, the deals will never be as big as they were prior to the scandal.

The Paula Deen brand was based upon a perception of a sweet kind Southern matron with a savvy business brain.  The revelations that she had used the ‘n’ word and her failed attempts at crisis communications shattered that brand image.  She came across as erratic, as being out of touch, and in some instances mean spirited.  Contrast this with the recent controversy over Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty and his remarks regarding homosexuals, fans and sponsors weren’t shocked despite the media firestorm as his comments (regardless of your opinion of them) were consistent with his brand and while standing by the remarks he apologized to those who were offended.  Unlike Robertson, Deen’s brand has suffered permanent damage because her words and subsequent actions were inconsistent with the brand she had built over the years.

So what can Paula Deen hope to achieve with the funding for Paula Deen Ventures?  She has a strong dedicated fan base.  With Paula Deen Ventures she can strengthen her ties with that base.  She will be able to engage her core base more than ever and will win some endorsements.  She may even make some new fans.  But Paula Deen will never be fully back as strong as she once was.  No matter how loyal her fan base is and no matter how much they buy and how much funding she receives, the Deen brand will never be what it was.

The tragedy of the fall of Paula Deen is it could have been avoided.  Sponsors and the public (not just her fans) are forgiving.  Had she had a proper crisis communications strategy she might have emerged stronger than ever.  Now Paula Deen Ventures is defending a diminished brand in a weaker position than anyone could have dreamed.

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