Brand Me, Baby

One of my guilty summer pleasures is “Next Food Network Star,” on the Food Network.  I don’t actually watch any of the resultant shows; I mostly watch for the competition aspect and so I can steal a recipe or two for my own kitchen.

Every season, I have to wonder if these contestants have either never seen a past episode of this show or they think they can game the system, because inevitably, quite a few of them show up to battle it out for Food Network stardom without having thought about one of the most crucial aspects of the competition:

Their brand.

Susie Fogelson, senior vice president of marketing and brand strategy for Food Network, always presses the contestants to think about their “point of view” or brand.  Some are pretty clever (“The Gourmet Next Door,” “Sandwich King”) and some require a little tweaking (“Girl on Grill” evolved into “Grill Next Door.”).  Some have a vague idea when they arrive, then do a complete 180 during the competition and come up with an entirely new POV that lends itself to a longer shelf life.

One of the more arrogant contestants from this past season was a guy by the name of Malcolm.  During the show, Malcolm was frequently praised for his food, but was hammered each week for not having a POV.  He was defiant, telling his mentor, Bobby Flay, and the judges that he didn’t need a POV, because it would limit him.  It was only when his head was on the chopping block did he “miraculously” decide he was all about soul food. 

To no one’s surprise, he was eliminated. 

During the reunion, Susie asked him yet again why he didn’t have a POV and yet again, Malcolm’s arrogance took over, as he stated he didn’t need one.  Susie was too nice to say it, but I will; this adamant stance against choosing a POV is why he doesn’t have a show on the Food Network.

On one hand, I can understand the fear of “boxing” yourself into one idea, but that’s a really short-sighted view.  Developing a POV or brand gives you focus and a foundation.  Look at any Food Network Star.  While their brands are pretty definable (Giada: modern Italian, Barefoot Contessa: easy elegance, Rachael Ray: 30 minute meals), they’ve been able to extend those brand into other areas, all while staying true to their core.  Cookware, appliances, cookbooks, gadgets and groceries are just a smattering of the offerings you’ll see from these culinary superstars, because it makes sense for their brand. 

That is the essence of a good brand; making it solid enough to be easily definable, yet flexible enough to branch into new territories without diluting it (for textbook evidence of this, look at Bethenny Frankel’s Skinnygirl empire, which started with booze and now includes shapewear, skincare, books, DVD’s.  She stays true to her brand by utilizing the simple idea of “practical solutions for women.”)

Frankly, this is no different in the publishing world.  While I think a lot of writers chafe at the idea of “branding” themselves, thinking it means they’re selling out, the truth is, if you study the careers of successful authors, indeed many of them have a brand.  Branding hasn’t hurt James Patterson, Stephen King, Janet Evanovich or a whole host of other popular authors.  Stephen King presides over a vast body of work that includes horror, mystery, fantasy, science fiction and suspense.  Nor has he limited himself to the novel, churning out short stories, plays, poems and screenplays—even non-fiction.

Last year, I had the chance to meet bestselling author, Wendy Corsi Staub, who judging by her output, I don’t think sleeps, told the assembled crowd at the book signing that branding gave her a leg up.  In fact, Wendy started out on the publishing side, eventually moving across the aisle to become a writer and said that she always approached writing as a business and right out of the gate, thought about building her brand (no seriously, check out her long list of suspense, YA and what she calls “women’s fiction,” many of which have been NY Times Bestsellers).  Clearly, approaching her writing career from the standpoint of building a brand has proven to be a successful formula for her.  And she’s also nice J

The brand I envision building for my own writing career is suspense novels that explore “The Dark Side of Love.”  We’ll see if I’m successful or not.

Susie Fogelson told “Variety” earlier this year that Food Network is in the business of building stars and “a star in this day and age is a multifaceted brand.”

It’s when you refuse to define yourself that you miss out on the opportunity to expand.

Now, back to writing.