Friday, February 20, 2009

Let them eat cake, and read it, too.

Flipping through the glossy pages of my hot-off-the-press, brand spankin' new copies of Food Network Magazine, I have to admire the moxie on display by Hearst and the Food Network empire. Really, Hearst? Putting out a new title while the economy continues to wilt and, almost every time I turn around, another magazine bites the proverbial dust? Really? Have you checked out Magazine Death Watch recently? Or, more grassroots, Mag Death Pool? Eager to add your brand to the list?

Something tells me they aren't too concerned. A closer look at the logic behind the launch reveals that the smart cookies over at Food Network are merely another case for the potential of smart marketing.

In the old, musty, ivy-covered lecture halls where I spent the better part of my college years, they warned me to pay attention, that, one day, I would need to know this stuff. Although I found it hard to believe at the time, every once in a while, one of those college-y nuggets of wisdom comes in handy - in this case, the very basics of marketing theory.

Marketing, as a function of business economics, is most successful when the object or idea in question fulfills a need, yes? In theory (there are some exceptions; anything Billy Mays decides to yell about, for example), not even the most brilliant application of the four Ps can create a lasting, successful business out of something that nobody needs. As consumer needs change, your business had better adapt, or before you know it, no one needs your wares, your bottom line doesn't pay the bills, and you're next in line to crumble. Basic marketing theory: listen to the needs of your audience, and find a way to fulfill those needs better than anyone else. Don't move on to the next thing until you've done the first thing correctly. And never stop listening.

(Disclaimer: I know very little, if anything, about businesses and finance and the like. This is just how I see it going down.)

***I Digress***

So-- back to media. It's painfully obvious that the economic crisis did not spare advertising agencies and their vendors. And as people progress and find new ways to get their news, entertainment, and so on, yes - media vehicles can become less relevant. Plenty of whisperings of media vehicles (not just properties) becoming obsolete, and the media world turning on its end, armageddon, etcetera. And, do we give up? Do we throw in the towel, and watch our media properties, along with the rest of the economy, go down the toilet?

No! Marketing 101: we turn our ears to the needs of our audience. We find a way to become relevant, and we do it better than anyone else.

Step 1: Listen to the needs of your audience.
Food Network was born out of an audience want for programming that covered all the food bases: from easy home cooking to restaurant management, from exciting competition to fine culinary education. And their content has adapted to reflect the times. Shows that teach how to make delicious food in a way that fits a busy lifestyle. Shows that teach how to stretch a dollar further without compromising taste or nutrition. You get the picture - this is an empire that was born out of a consumer need, and has kept consumer wants at the heart of its business development.

Step 2: Do one thing, and improve upon it until you do it better than anyone else.
There has almost always been some sort of food programming on television, but never before had there been one channel that delivered 110% of the time on so many aspects of of the food industry. Even with the rise of high-performing dramas such as Top Chef, I don't think there is any question as to which network is providing the best food content. Food Network has been developing carefully as a network for some time now; shaping brilliant and charismatic chefs into legitimate television stars, crafting content for consumer lifestyles, and entertaining audiences while educating. I'm pretty sure I would melt into a puddle of mush if Bobby Flay ever showed up to challenge me to a throwdown, eh?

Step 3: Move on to the next thing, and do that better than anyone else.
The online space was a natural extension for Food Network - people wanted access to the recipes they saw on their favorite shows. Online was the most efficient way for Food Network to repurpose their content and expand their foothold. The site, which houses not only recipe content, but video and original content, continues to serve audience needs and creates a stronger bond between the audience and the stars and shows they love. They are doing food online better than anyone else, and they are using that success to continue to strengthen their flagship property.

Step 4: Lather, rinse, and repeat step 3.
With Food Network as the strongest food entity in cable, and the most-trafficked food site on the internet (comScore), why not continue to bulldoze the competition? Food Network and Hearst weren't carelessly throwing money into magazine at a time when magazines are declining. They were expanding into a new arena at the request of their audience. The magazine is incredibly well-done, with beautiful original photography, all-new recipes tested by the Food Network test kitchens, and edit contributions by 20-30 much-loved Food Network stars in each issue. It has the leverage of a couple of blockbuster properties and a raving fan base as a foundation. There have been two issues on newsstand thus far, and already full-price subscriptions are far over-delivering on projections. The strategic progression from television to online to print would suggest that this is a brand that understands marketing, business, consumerism, and the like. I don't see them waving the white flag anytime soon.

Not to say there aren't plenty of media enterprises doin' it and doin' it and doin' it well. Our dear friend Oprah, for example. Or, how about Martha Stewart? There is no quick fix for the economic crises that are gripping media vendors by the throat. But case studies like Food Network's foray into print tell us that there is still room in this waning economy for strategic marketing. With a little moxie, it still works, when you do it right. Really.