Paula Deen and Food Licensing: Why Didn’t She have More to Lose?

Paula Deen, as a brand with great licensing potential, seems almost beyond repair.  While I can imagine strategies that would slowly revive her brand equity and trustworthiness to America’s shoppers, even that careful strategy would take a while to carry out.  

Meanwhile, there are scores of Deen-branded products that have already left store shelves.  You’ve probably read about the decisions of Wal-Mart, Sears, Target, JC Penney, Home Depot, QVC and other major retailers to discontinue licensing and selling lines of Paula Deen-branded cookware and other merchandise.  The Food Network cancelled its contract with Deen, as did Novo Nordisk and her biggest food partner, Smithfield Foods, which engaged her as a spokeswoman and a brand on a Deen-branded ham.

One interesting chapter in this ongoing saga was the announcement by several of Deen’s licensees that they would stick with her in spite of the scandal.   These companies included the bulk of her food licensees: companies like Springer Mountain Foods, Landies Candies, Sandridge Food, Epicurean Butter, and Tasty Blend Foods.

One thing that struck me about this announcement was that all of these companies are relatively small.

And when I stepped back and looked at Paula Deen’s food licensing program overall I had to ask myself: why wasn’t it bigger?   She was one of the biggest national brands in food.  Why wasn’t she working with the biggest national food companies?

AT IMC we started thinking about Paula Deen’s licensing potential as soon as she got famous.  Not many firms like ours are based in the South, and I don’t know of any with our range of experience in food & beverage licensing.  We understood her appeal to consumers as soon as anyone.

But when we contacted Paula Deen’s representatives we were always told that they had their food licensing covered.  And we saw them cut what looked like reactive deals (possibly responding to phone calls rather than a plan) with one regional food company after another.

We felt that Paula Deen was popular enough to deserve a national platform for her food-licensing program.  But in food, her team seemed to avoid the kind of national strategy that they successfully implemented for cookware and other merchandise.  Until Smithfield (which used Deen more as an endorser than a product brand), her food partners were not large national companies.

We build all of our work on strong and long-term strategies.  It always frustrated us that Paula Deen seemed to avoid such a strategy in her food licensing work.  What she deserved, when things were going well, was a smaller number of partners – possibly even one master licensee as a partner, a major food company that could build an entire line of Southern foods around the South’s most famous cook.

I believe that such a strategy would have found success, and even in the wake of recent events I wish that Paula Deen had built her retail brand in this strategic way.

At this point it might not matter, and if we had been lucky enough to build and execute that plan for Paula Deen we would probably be working with her now to dismantle it.

I believe everyone deserves a second chance if they learn from their mistakes, and Paula Deen may recover her national appeal.  But even if she does not, there will be another Paula Deen, and others after that, and I hope that they will take the time to develop a strategy and then find the best partners to match their fullest potential.

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