I find Paula Deen to be utterly magnetic. Her allure goes way beyond charm, I think; I want to hang out with her, to sit on that magnificent Lowcountry porch and dish about the neighbors, to be invited over for Thanksgiving dinner with Michael and the boys. (I would bring Bourbon Cranberry Sauce, and it would be a Big Hit.)
Isn't that just the effect a really great brand has on you? I can see Paula as part of my life, a celebrity friendship as casual and easy as any meaningful relationship in my life.
So I was heartbroken to watch her appearance on The Today Show last week when she announced the Type 2 Diabetes diagnosis. Not so much because of the disease—I believe she will successfully manage it—but because the entire handling of the announcement was such a debacle.
How I wish I had been Paula Deen's brand consultant when she learned of the diagnosis three years ago. (Of course, the report that her longtime publicist resigned last month after Paula began hawking a diabetes drug indicates the Food Network star didn't follow the counsel she received anyway.) But I would have made a powerful pitch to her—one she may never have thought about or considered—and that perspective, I believe, could have changed every misstep that followed.
At issue is the protection of a multi-million dollar brand built around the very culprit in this significant and dangerous health diagnosis: rich, fatty, unhealthful Southern recipes. Paula and her team created an empire promoting comfort food, beginning with The Lady and Sons Savannah, Georgia restaurant, then expanding in every direction—publishing of cookbooks and magazines, multiple television shows, an extensive line of signature cookware, online and retail interests. A heavy consideration in the what do we do about this diagnosis discussion, no doubt, was Dean's endless array of "strategic partnerships" with other national brands, including Walmart, Smithfield, Harrah’s, International Greeting and Cooking.com, to name just a few.
Here, apparently, was the Protect the Brand strategy:
- Wait three years to publicly announce that she has Type 2 Diabetes, all the while continuing to expand—rather than refining—her brand
- Form another strategic partnership, but with a drug company rather than a highly respected, mission-driven nonprofit
- Make the diabetes announcement during a live segment on The Today Show, an appearance in which she was (uncharacteristically) nervous and disingenuous
How did a brilliant business woman capable of such extensive brand expansion come to make so many poor crisis communications decisions? Contrary to popular opinion, I don't believe greed is the heart of the issue. (Pollyanna, I know. But I don't.)
I believe the problem is having a brand strategy based on this flawed core premise:
Brand Paula Deen = Southern Cooking
Wrong. So wrong. This powerful brand is based on one thing that should have been protected at all cost, but wasn't:
Brand Paula Deen = the authenticity of Paula Deen, herself
I can't think of another celebrity more utterly charming and disarming in her honesty. Likely to say anything at any time, she lights up stage and screen by saying exactly what she's thinking—and what we are thinking, too, but are too timid to say.
How powerful it could have been had she announced the diagnosis early, long before she had "something to bring to the table." What if, three years ago, she'd said:
I didn't expect this. I don't know enough. I am afraid.
What if she'd invited us all to take this very human journey with her, changing our lifestyles and habits and menus, one day at a time, together.
Would her brand have disintegrated? Would the Food Network have dropped her? Would corporate partners have abandoned her?
I surely don't think so.
Paula Deen, the person, will survive this misstep, I do believe. But the brand has suffered a severe blow. And the best thing it can do (I sure hope it moves quickly) is to get real about what Paula Dean, the brand, stands for. I, for one, think there is way more there than just another stick of butter.