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What the Colonel taught us


“It takes a lot more than good cooking to make a restaurant a success,” said the president of Emeril Lagasse’s corporation, in this Associated Press profile of the celebrity chef, who was basically bought out by Martha Stewart and now works for her Omnimedia empire (no disrespect intended. Everybody has a buyout price).

If any two people in the wine and food world understand the concept of branding, it’s Lagasse,TV’s most famous chef (what, you think it’s Rachel Ray?), and Stewart, the grande dame of lifestyle mavens. They’ve entered the pantheon of celebrities whose first names alone are instantly recognized by millions.

However cheesy you may think Emeril and Martha are, there’s no denying that both have been fabulously successful in their chosen careers. They have lessons to teach to two populations in particular whose thoughts tend to wander toward questions of branding: bloggers and wineries.

What Emeril and Martha understand — Steve Jobs, too — is that America is a brand-oriented consumer culture. People want and need to buy stuff, but they’re fundamentally insecure (especially in this awful economy), so they look for proven names they trust. That’s what famous brands depend on: America’s trust.

But trust isn’t forever, as Toyota is learning the hard way. If it was, Radio Shack would still make the most popular computers. Especially in turbulent times such as these, with the economy reshaping itself into who knows what, and the Internet shaking everything up, there are opportunities for wineries that are not yet brand names but would like to be. Every generation presents such chances, as Robert Mondavi understood in his bones. So what lessons do Martha and Emeril have to teach wannabe brands?

The first is that, in our American meritocracy, anyone can become branded. That doesn’t mean everyone can, or will. But if Emeril and Martha — two basically weird people — could, you can, too. They did it with a combination of chutzpah, talent in their skills (Martha personality, Emeril cooking), organizational talent and an innate understanding of P.R. that’s reflected in relentless self-promotion.

I started this post with the quote “It takes a lot more than good cooking to make a restaurant a success” for a reason. Lots of chefs cook well, but their restaurants will never be successes. And lots of people make good wine, but they will fail in the long run or even the medium-short. What then makes for success?

There’s also luck. Most people who have made it will tell you they were in the right place at the right time. But since luck is incapable of being managed, we can eliminate it from our playbook. Let’s look at this from a winery point of view. First of all, they have to be good at what they do, i.e. making wine. You’ll never build a successful winery if you’re turning out crap. This implies that you have to know the difference between “good” and “crap,” which isn’t so easy, to judge from what I taste out there.

It also helps to put a face on the winery. That’s another thing Robert Mondavi understood. Randall Grahm, too. Most successful wineries have a front man. It can be the winemaker (e.g., Bob Cabral at Williams Selyem) or the owner (Jess Jackson). The public likes faces; Kentucky Fried Chicken wouldn’t have made it without Colonel Sanders.


And the face needs to connect with the public. That’s a mysterious alchemy. Not everyone can connect. Hollywood directors can tell the difference between a face the camera loves, and one it doesn’t. Consumers can tell the difference between a face who cares about them, and one that’s just going through the motions. Colonel Sanders connects.

I mentioned Bob Cabral. He’s a great face for his winery. He’s interesting and friendly and funny. He connects in a human way. Granted, Williams Selyem was famous before Bob came onboard, which made his job easier; but he’s still a role model for itinerant winemakers who go on the road. Nothing cheesy or tacky about Bob Cabral. He can warm up an audience like a seasoned pol, and make them feel like he’s speaking personally to each and every one of them, heart to heart and mind to mind. Bloggers need this quality, too. The public will read blogs if they feel a face coming through, a real spirit behind the words. In the chaos and uncertainty that seem to be descending on American culture, people more than ever long for a personal connection with their leaders, and with the products they buy. Sarah Palin, too, understands this, even if it’s just about the only truth she does get.

  1. Jim Caudill says:

    I worked with Emeril on various projects when he was producing Emeril’s Classic Wines with Brown-Forman, and particularly each Fall when he came to Hopland for a week to do a series of events loosely organized as Emeril Under The Harvest Sun. I’ve never seen a guy play harder, be kinder and more supportive to his staff, and have one driving thing that he was relentless about: when the time came, he was totally focused on having his organization deliver a big-time experience to his customer.

    There’s a complex set of reasons that people respond, but you can never go wrong being customer focused. It never goes out of fashion, never falls out of style.

    Emeril’s a force of nature and while the wind may not be blowing quite as hard as it used too, his sails are still full, and will be for a long time to come.

  2. Steve, your lesson here is a really goo one. It reminds me of something Donald Trump say, “everybody should be a salesman”. He went on to say that many great authors never had successful books, not because of their writing abilities, but because of their sales skills.

  3. Brett: Amen. Sales skill has been important for centuries. Look up the history of Haut-Brion and see how the proprietor hundreds of years ago took an aggressive approach to marketing. It worked.

  4. Emeril is a phenomenon. When doing sales for Belvedere, I visited his restaurant. I sent a thank you letter to him, to tell him how professional his staff was. I always just did this kind of follow-up, because it was just good sales business… Hand written on really beautiful note cards.

    That put me onto his Christmas card list; a card for which he personally signed. Yes, he probably signed thousands of them, but he *did* sign them.

    He’s got the gift…

  5. I just met Emeril at the South Beach food and wine festival with a friend of mine who has known him for many years – what an incredible man! He’s kind, compassionate and generous. He is a BRAND, for sure.

  6. Lisa Mattson says:

    Great post. I’ll be sending this to John.

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