Tag Archives: Paula Deen

A Tale of Two Brands

One week after Donald Trump’s stunning win in the presidential election, the debate is still going on, as to how he was able to pull off his stunning election victory. One reason that is being overlooked and should be studied by business communicators and CEOs is that Trump regardless of if you love him or hate him was consistent with his brand identity.  In every election since Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election in 1936, the candidate who came across as being more authentic with his brand identity won the election.  This election was no exception.

A brand needs to tell a story.  That story needs to be consistent and reflect the brands values and beliefs.  It is what consumers and voters buy into and will allow a brand to develop a loyalty that will allow it to survive in hard times and flourish in good times.

Donald Trump over the years has built a brand identity based upon being brash, abrasive, in your face, decisive, and one who never backs down.  This identity has been built upon countless interviews, books, product lines, and of course Celebrity Apprentice.  It is why Americans felt that they knew him, the moment he announced his candidacy, while other candidates like Scott Walker, John Kasich, and even Ted Cruz were struggling to introduce themselves to the American public.  This familiarity with the Trump brand is why he was able to survive incidents that would have taken down another candidate (insulting John McCain, the Megyn Kelly episode, the Access Hollywood tape).  Millions of voters just saw these events as Trump being Trump and were neither shocked nor angered.  They saw it as Trump being consistent with his brand.

Contrast this with Hillary Clinton.  Voters were never sure what her brand identity was.  She introduced more new Hillarys during the campaign, then Richard Nixon had new Nixons in his entire career.  First she was the mother and grandmother breaking the glass ceiling.  Next she was the most experienced candidate to ever seek the White House.  After that, she was the progressive Hillary in the mode of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.  This shifted over time to the consensus candidate who would unite America.  Yet at the end voters were uncertain if she was any of these brands.

But it just isn’t in politics that we see this.  Recall the Duck Dynasty scandal several years ago when Phil Robertson made homophobic and racist remarks.  He and Duck Dynasty survived and continue to flourish because he was seen as being consistent with the brand.  Yet Paula Deen who was seen for years as a nice grandmotherly person saw her brand crumble when it was revealed she had used the ‘n’ word.  This went against her whole brand identity and she has yet to this day to recover.

The lesson that Trump and others serve is that by being consistent with a brand identity forged over the year will allow a brand to weather the worse of scandals and allow for even greater success.  Having no brand identity or going against an established brand identity is a recipe for disaster.

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Social Media Drives Narratives

Social media drives narratives. This cannot be stated enough. Yet despite the power of social media and brands realizing its importance, they forget about its power and potential to create a crisis. Very often their social media strategy does not reflect their tradition public relations strategy.

A case in point was celebrity chef, Paula Deen. A photograph of Deen dressed as Lucille Ball and her son, Bobby with a brown face supposedly as Desi Arnaz was tweeted on Deen’s Twitter account. This is occurred as as Deen has been waging a public relations campaign to rebuild her brand after accusations of racism in 2013 practically sank her brand. The public outcry was tremendous with Deen the focus of outrage and ridicule. It was later stated by Deen that the photograph was from several years ago and her social media manager who was responsible for the tweet had been dismissed. Yet the story received widespread media coverage.

Whether an innocent mistake or not, the damage has been done to Deen, reinforcing the image in many people’s minds that Deen is a racist and justifying to sponsors yet again why they were wise to sever ties with her. This as Deen has been going to great lengths to rebuild her image with a carefully orchestrated media and public relations campaign. With that one tweet all the work she had done was undone and its back to the drawing board for Deen.

Brands often forget that their social media strategy must correspond with their traditional media strategy. If it doesn’t that becomes a story.

Brands also forget the power of social media. The Deen photo was taken down yet it had been screen captured and re-tweeted thousands of times. Once something is posted on a social media site, it can be captured even if it is taken down. Nothing is ever permanently deleted from social media.

Social media also creates the news stories that the media cover. The Deen photo would never have received the coverage it did save for social media driving it. Very often the media doesn’t even consider something to be newsworthy until it explodes on social media. This is why every social media post needs to be handled with the care that a brand would handle a press release and needs constant monitoring. But it isn’t just Deen who forgot the power of social media. Both the recent Brian Williams’ story and Bill Cosby story were the result of social media. Veterans’ organization had tried contacting NBC and other media outlets for years about Williams’ fabrications and were ignored. Only when the story appeared on social media did it obtain coverage. Likewise the allegations by numerous women against Bill Cosby did not receive strong media coverage until they appeared on social media. In both cases the media went into a frenzy to compensate for not covering them originally feeling they had been scooped by social media.

Brands know the power of social media in reaching consumers and playing a role in their marketing efforts. What they must never underestimate is the power it has in driving narratives and causing a media firestorm. To do so is to do it at their peril.

Paula Deen’s Plight. Another Foot-In-Mouth Moment

Food Network was brought down last summer, in a deposition where she admitted that she had used the ‘n’ word in the past and considered a plantation style event with African-American employees dressed in anti-bellum attire.  What made her crisis more explosive was her feeble attempts at crisis communications culminating with her appearance on the Today Show where she claimed she (Deen)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, cancelling her show.

Just a few weeks ago, it appeared she was looking to launch a comeback when it was announced that she had 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.  She was greeted by adoring fans in Miami earlier this week. 

But now in interview with People magazine, she compares herself to NFL prospect Michael Sam who admitted that he is gay.  When discussing how the scandal from last summer has affected her reputation, Deen said, It’s like that black football player who recently came out,” “He said, ‘I just want to be known as a football player. I don’t want to be known as a gay football player.’ I know exactly what he’s saying.”

She also sees a double standard in how some television personalities were able to recover from scandal – Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson and fellow celebrity chef, Nigella Lawson –  with little lasting damage to their brands.  She believes she is a victim of the media in that she suffered more damage than did Robertson or Lawson.

So what is Deen doing wrong in her comeback attempt?

  1. She fails to apologize or admit she may have handled the situation poorly. Some degree of contrition is required for a comeback.  The public is often willing to forgive but they must hear an apology.  Deen is unwilling or unable to do this.
  2. Deen continues to appear indifferent at best and insensitive at worst towards racial and sexual preference issues. Last year on the Today Show, she told Matt Lauer she couldn’t understand why anyone might be offended by the ‘n’ word.  Now she compares her ordeal to what Michael Sam is going through.  Sam is facing an uncertain world and reception as he attempts to break into the NFL as an openly gay player.  In many ways he is this generation’s Jackie Robinson.   For Deen to compare herself to Sam is offensive and continues to demonstrate that she doesn’t get it.  The ‘it’ being how she may have offended people.  She shows no empathy and for a brand to be trusted and recover it must show empathy. Indeed her remarks in People were as subtle as one of her recipes.
  3. She continues to appear erratic which led sponsors to dump her last year. Her recent comments reinforce this erratic impression.  Businesses don’t want to be associated with erratic.
  4. She continues to go against her brand identity. Her brand was built as a sweet grandmother.  Instead she comes across as unpredictable, bitter and mean spirited.  She mentions Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson, as a brand that survived and says it’s a double standard.  Deen doesn’t understand that Robertson survived, albeit with lower ratings this season, because his remarks were consistent with his and Duck Dynasty’s brand, while hers were not. Robertson was transparent, what you saw is what you got, Paula Deen isn’t transparent and people are confused as to who the real Paula Deen is.
  5. She continues to play the victim as she did when she appeared on the Today Show last summer. That is a cardinal mistake to make.   Playing the victim in a crisis, as well as, appearing insensitive is a recipe for a disaster and a failure.

Paula Deen will never be as strong as she was and this remark reinforces this point.  There will be no Paula Deen comeback like there was for Martha Stewart.  The Paula Deen brand as it was before the deposition came out last summer is finished.   What is ironic is that had she a crisis communications plan in place and followed it effectively; her brand would be as strong if not stronger than what it was.  If ever there was a case study in why crisis communications is needed and what not to do in a crisis, it is Paula Deen.

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.