How a genuine love for cooking and better kitchen products turned into a successful brand. Accessible is probably not the first word that comes to mind when you think of a celebrity. Yet that’s the driving force behind the success of Rachael Ray and her branded products. Having great food and product ideas that help the home cook doesn’t hurt, either.
“She’s an idea factory,” said John Cusimano, CEO of Watch Entertainment, Inc. and Ray’s husband. Indeed, Ray’s highly successful line of kitchen products began a few years ago with a spaghetti pot she drew on the back of a cocktail napkin. The pot is oval, so the spaghetti slides in easily, and two oval pots fit on adjacent burners much better than two round ones.
As an attorney with a background in film licensing, Cusimano helped Ray with the company’s first licensing deal: two oval pots developed with international cookware manufacturer Meyer. Later on, the product line expanded to include knives, along with products Ray was well know for from Food Network’s “30 Minute Meals”: the garbage bowl and the moppine (a dishtowel with insulated pockets for use as a potholder).
Today, Ray’s line of kitchen products includes everything from casserole dishes to cutlery, and her name is on pantry items such as olive oil and cooking stock as well as a line of high quality dog food.
Cusimano noted that the product line, although now substantial, began slowly because Ray doesn’t want to put her name on any product she doesn’t believe in. Not only must it be high quality, it must also reflect her philosophy of making cooking fun and accessible.
“Rachael sees herself as a catalyst to having people be able to do their own thing in the kitchen,” said Cusimano. “It’s all about having families cook for each other. Her recipes are always delicious, but she tries not to make them too challenging, and she uses easily accessible ingredients.”
He added that, in a way, the brand is a foil for aspirational brands like Martha Stewart. “Rachael’s viewpoint is all about making people’s lives easier and making sure they aren’t afraid to go in the kitchen,” he said. “It gives you a boost of self confidence when you feed your family delicious food for less than it costs to eat out. We thought that idea would resonate, and with luck and hard work, it has.”
As the Rachael Ray brand expanded into a syndicated TV show and a cooking/lifestyle magazine, Cusimano’s primary role became maintaining those all-important vendor relationships.
The business now includes media partners like CBS and the Food Network; The Readers Digest Association, which publishes the magazine; as well as a select group of manufacturers.
“My job at Rachael Ray ‘command central’ is to develop close relationships with all of those people,” said Cusimano. “TV executives really don’t understand what a cookware manufacturer is doing, but it’s our job to help them understand. We synergize everything that’s going on so it pushes the brand to the next level.”
He noted that the proliferation of social media means ensuring all of the aspects of the business work together seamlessly is critical. “That’s the only way to ensure you are maximizing your reach to people,” he said.
Digital media is a major expansion area for the company. It’s working on a new version of its popular iPhone app TastyBites and recently finalized an agreement with Demand Media’s eHow.com to create content and develop talent for the food section of the site. “The idea is to expand the brand digitally since that’s where the world is going,” said Cusimano. The new site will launch in April with videos from food and wine experts vetted by Ray.
The product portion of the brand is also expanding, moving from the kitchen to the dining room and from there into other rooms of the house. Cusimano said Ray is excited about the new stoneware sets, including Bubble & Brown bakeware that goes from oven to table, to the fridge with leftovers, then back to the table and into the dishwasher. A sophisticated manufacturing process means they stay new looking much longer than traditional ovenware, and large handles make for easy transfer. “We have the prototypes in our kitchen, and they’re still shiny clean, and we use them all the time,” said Cusimano.
Ray chose colors for the stoneware and a soon-to-be-available line of dishes and serving pieces. Said Cusimano: “Rachael loves owls, so there’s a line of plates with owls on them. She calls them The Hoot.”
Cusimano makes it sound easy, but basing a celebrity brand around accessibility is an interesting feat that could only be done by people with a genuine love for what they do. “When you make her food, you’re eating what she’s eating; when you use her products, it’s almost like you’re in her home,” said. “That all loops right back to the accessibility factor of the brand. You don’t have to be an expert—she’s a cook, not a trained chef, so you can do it, too.”
That thoughtfulness is also behind the company’s brand expansion, which includes Ray’s 501(c)(3). Yum-O is dedicated to helping educate children and parents about healthy eating, establishing a way to fund young adults who want to go into foodservice businesses and colleges, and helping to pay for food in areas where children don’t have a lot of access to healthy food.
“It’s a large part of what Rachael thinks about,” said Cusimano. “We don’t have children ourselves, so taking care of children is that much more important to her. We’ve been lucky, and things have gone well for us business-wise, so we really couldn’t sleep at night if we didn’t give back in some way.”