Food Network: Brand Tie-Ins That Sizzle but Don’t Burn

Food Net's endorsements are woven inconspicuously into its programming mix

Imagine being able to pay for the privilege of having Sandra Lee or “Barefoot Contessa” Ina Garten use a specific kind of butter, sugar or spice in one of the recipes they prepare on TV’s Food Network.

For years, that sort of thing had only been a pipe dream of various marketing executives. The people behind Food Network have kept the outlet’s how-to programming — the backbone of its daytime schedule — free from shout-outs to various comestibles made by Pillsbury, Kraft or McCormick.

“We always had a policy of not doing that and the reason was that we really wanted to build a brand based upon authority and trust,” says Karen Grinthal, senior VP of ad sales for Food Network and its sibling, Cooking Channel. “We couldn’t risk losing that neutral status, which is what would have happened if we had appeared to endorse any brand within the content.”

Twenty years in, however, Food Network has tweaked its advertising recipe.

While the outlet continues to run a platoon of how-to programs such as “Ten Dollar Dinners” or “Cooking for Real,” it has broadened its palate. As Food Network’s programming menu has expanded, so too have opportunities to let advertisers weave themselves into the content mix. Placements can take the form of product appearances in the shows themselves, or in the ad breaks, where Food Network talent might show up in special vignettes hawking the wares.

Grinthal recalls a 2006 effort that matched Guy Fieri, at the time fresh from winning “The Next Food Network Star,” with TGI Friday’s. As Fieri hosted “Ultimate Recipe Showdown,” recipes from the program would show up in promotional cards at the chain’s outlets. TGIF ended up striking a separate endorsement deal with the celebrity chef, Grinthal recalls.

Today, Food Network often serves as a broker (the better to help avoid marketing relationships such as a controversial one Paula Deen struck with Novo Nordisk, a medication for diabetes that raised questions about the fatty, creamy ingredients she used on her shows).

And there are times when the cabler uses its clout to nix endorsement opportunities for its personalities if the deals happen to clash with the network’s agenda. But more often than not, the association with the Food Network is money for chefs.

Consider the case, of Alex Guarnaschelli, who came to be known as a regular judge on “Chopped.” Guarnaschelli was enlisted last year to share recipes inspired by sponsor Fisher Nuts during ad breaks on both Food Network and Cooking Channel.

Parent company Scripps Networks Interactive helped put together a separate one-year deal between the celebrity chef and John B. Sanfilippo & Son, the company that owns Fisher Nuts. As Food Network grew bigger, “we got much more involved in the deals,” Grinthal says, though all the hosts are represented independently by agents.

In the meantime, sponsors are cropping up in all sorts of spaces. John Lee, executive chef of Outback Steakhouse, served as a judge on an Australian-themed episode of “Chopped,” while FedEx was able to demonstrate how it helped print and deliver posters quickly on “Restaurant: Impossible.”

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