by Steve Adubato, PhD
Celebrity chef Paula Deen is trying to rebuild her brand after last year’s debacle of not only acknowledging using the "n-word" in the past, but also making insensitive and off-the-wall comments about slavery and race relations in a New York Times forum. In the forum, Deen talked about her great-grandfather "losing all the workers" (actually 30 slaves who were set free), which ultimately caused him to go into his barn and shoot himself "because he couldn’t deal with those kind of changes."
At the time, Paula Deen’s considerable business empire imploded. The Food Network dropped her, afraid that her brand implosion would rub off on them. Her book publisher and sponsors also ran for the exits.
But when it comes to the branding game, many public figures and corporations often can find second and possibly third lives. People can have short memories and we can also be forgiving. But in Deen’s case, her brand rebuilding is more complex because her communication faux pas revolved around the issue of race, which from a business perspective is seen by many as the third rail of commerce — you just don’t touch it.
Further, it has been Deen’s public communication since her re-emergence and rebranding effort that has been particularly interesting. Last week, Deen appeared in Miami at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival in front of an enthusiastic crowd of supporters. In her presentation, she stated, "We have come off a hard summer, my family and partners, and I want to take a moment to apologize to those who didn’t hear me," Deen reminded folks that she had apologized before, but she wanted to apologize again.
The first problem is that Deen never actually acknowledged what she was apologizing for. Apologies need to be specific. Generic apologies just don’t cut it if you are attempting to connect with a larger audience, which is clearly what Paula Deen is trying to do in her rebranding effort. Further, after she apologized, she went into an unscripted moment saying, "I don’t even have a joke. Not one that I can tell. And I would so love to tell y’all my favorite one about a little boy." At that point, her onstage handlers yelled out for her not to tell the joke.
Everyone laughed, but here is the problem. Once again, Paula Deen was unscripted in her communication. The challenge for her is that when she is not talking about food, but rather about race (or trying to be funny) she is in the danger zone. Paula Deen’s use of the word "boy" is risky given her previous communication problems connected to issues involving race. I don’t know what she really meant by using the word "boy," but knowing her history, there is a chance that something disastrous could come out of her mouth. So, the question is why, after everything she has been through — after her brand has taken such a hit — would she even enter this danger zone?
Successful branding requires discipline and a clear message. You must understand that when on stage (even among a friendly audience) your goal is to only communicate about what you know because very often you are on video which will be shared with millions via social media.
If Deen’s objective is to expand her audience and rebrand herself, it’s going to require a more focused and controlled communication game plan. My sense is that celebrity chef Paula Deen won’t be able to pull that off because that is not how she became a success in the first place. Even though the arena and the game have changed, in this new social media environment, she is still playing by her old branding rules. Unfortunately, that game plan is unlikely to succeed as she tries to rebrand herself after taking such a massive hit.