It’s not just the time of year: the hottest media is food. Recipes, menus, cookery competitions, entertaining and eating attract broadcast viewers and online traffic like nothing else. Increased exposure to international cuisine and a growing interest in health and nutrition is persuading more people to eat out but also to realise that home meals can be healthier. Almost everywhere, there is a passion for learning about cookery and talking about it. The huge audiences are nectar for food manufacturers whose advertising spend comes second only to car makers. They recognise that food media is outpacing overall internet growth by as much as five times, that up to 70% of millennials and 30% of older age groups in the US, for example, use smartphones to find meal ideas and, larger numbers still, to inform grocery shopping.
Forbes magazine says the sixth biggest revenue-earning YouTuber is the Nerdy Nummies cooking show, by wannabe actress Rosanna Pansino. It features baking creations resembling characters and objects from video games, television shows and films, and has generated some $6m of revenue this year from its 7m subscribers and 75m monthly views. Her cookbook even made it to the New York Times bestsellers list.
Cookery books, TV programmes and celebrity chefs have long been a significant business, but nothing like the millennial explosion in recipes. It has been helped along by the reality TV cooking boom which was kick-started in 40 countries by Master Chef (first launched by the BBC all of 26 years ago, but reinvented in Australia in 2009). The 13-year-old Hell’s Kitchen has enjoyed similar
global success, hosted by celeb-chefs Gordon Ramsay, in the US, and Marco Pierre White, in Australia. And so has the 10-year-old Come Dine with Me, in which amateur chefs compete against each other hosting a dinner party for the other contestants.
Cookery dominates TV viewing and even the news. In the US, the 15-year-old daytime TV show America’s Test Kitchen (which has won Emmies, launched radio shows, magazines and more than 100 cookbooks) is mired in headline-grabbing litigation with its departed celebrity chef. The UK parliament recently found itself drawn into soap-opera controversy when the BBC lost its popular Great British Bake Off series to a rival channel. The show had attracted audiences of up to 15m and made a media star of its presenter, 81-year-old cookery writer Mary Berry, who is staying with the BBC to launch yet another cookery show in 2017. Earlier this year, more than 150,000 Brits signed a petition in protest at the BBC’s plan to remove its highly-rated online database of 11,000 recipes. The BBC was forced to back down, saying it would instead shift the recipes to the website of its Good Food magazine, which happens to be the UK’s largest food site.
The controversy highlighted the way that, in a congested digital world, cooking is powerful because it wins large audiences across all age groups. Last year, there were no fewer than 23bn worldwide online views of food videos. An estimated 70% of the audience were millennials. That’s why online recipes are so hot for food advertisers and sponsors.
Despite the recent disclosure that Jamie Oliver sold a no-slouch 1.7m books in 2015, it is clear that celebrity chefs have largely moved beyond books and TV to host free recipe sites, competing with the how-to-cook offerings of supermarkets, newspapers, magazines and food bloggers. Like retailers, they use recipes increasingly as a promotional platform for profitable products and services.
Traditional food-focused magazines like Good Housekeeping, Better Homes & Gardens, and Australian Women’s Weekly are propped up by their focus on cookery and by successful books promoted almost universally by the promise of recipes ‘triple tested’ in their own test kitchens. Dedicated food magazines are almost universally stronger than their peers. Condé Nast, US publisher of Bon Appétit and Epicurious, claim their revenue was 10% up in 2016. Advertising budgets are driving the food content boom, and social media is rammed with viral videos of melting cheese and gooey chocolate.
But much of the digital revenue is being sucked up by 5 diverse global players in a fierce food fight:
The global players
Allrecipes, digital leader for 20 years: The long-time world leader in user-generated online recipes is 20 years old in 2017. The site, which has over 80m monthly uniques and
1.3bn visits annually (40% in the US) was acquired by the $1.7bn revenue broadcast-digital-magazines group Meredith Corp for $175m in 2012. It features recipes posted by users, categorised by season, type of dish and ingredients. It is a social network for food lovers, and has 18 sites representing 23 countries in 12 languages, with 250m saved recipes.
Allrecipes complements other Meredith food activities including: EatingWell, Recipe .com, Martha Stewart, Better Homes & Gardens, and Family Circle. It is believed that Allrecipes has a revenue of some $80m and operating profit of up to $15m. This year, it launched Dinner Spinner, a 26-week TV series in which two home cooks compete. It is assumed that this will be just the start of a major push into TV for Allrecipes, 37% of whose online audience is millennial.
EatingWell and Allrecipes magazines have circulations of 1m and 1.3m respectively and have a combined readership of almost 14m. They have been growing during a decade when most print has been going backwards. EatingWell’s November-December issue has 58% more ad pages than a year ago.
Allrecipes recently tied up with Amazon’s voice-activated virtual assistant Alexa to help guide users through 60,000 recipes. In addition to recommending what they can make for dinner, home chefs – using devices like the Amazon Echo – can pick recipes based on the ingredients they already have, the amount of time they have to spare, or even their preferred cooking method. Such an approach may lead to shoppers ordering the ingredients they need for a recipe and then being instructed step-by-step how to make the meal. It is one of the early signs of how Artificial Intelligence (AI) or computer ‘deep learning’ may revolutionise food retailing and cookery.
The Food Network, global TV leader: The one-time US newspaper company Scripps Networks Interactive is a $3bn revenue lifestyle media specialist (food, home, travel). It owns the $1bn-revenue Food Network, the world’s largest food media business. It is a global
television channel, substantial web site and a magazine (published by Hearst), which “strives to be viewers’ best friend in food and is committed to leading by teaching, inspiring and empowering through its talent and expertise”. It was launched in 1993 and had become America’s second fastest-growing cable network within four years. It made cooking something Americans wanted to do, as well as watch. It was launched internationally in 2009.
In the US, the Food Network broadcasts attract audiences of more than 50m (it is one of the 10 biggest networks among 25-54 year old women), with programmes including Food Network Star, Chopped Grill Masters, Worst Cooks in America, and The Great Food Truck Race Expedition. The cable broadcasts now reach over 150m households across the US, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Middle East, Africa, Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean with 24-hour networks in the UK, India, Australia, and Brazil. Its Asian Food Channel is the first. Scripps also operates the Cooking Channel, which last year increased its US audience by 13%, driven by programmes like Cutthroat Kitchen, Unique Eats and Sweet Genius.
Scripps’ food .com is a social network of home cooks who connect and share recipes, photos, cooking tips and food trends – a daily cooking community, featuring 500,000 user-generated recipes, 125,000 photos and millions of reviews. The Food Network, Food and Cooks Channel sites claim an aggregate 44m monthly uniques. The Food Network, which recently announced a US partnership with Instacart’s grocery-delivery, is the world’s most successful food media business with operating profits of some $300m. But its leadership is now open to challenge from the new digital kids on the block.
TasteMade, video powerhouse: One of the challengers is the four-year-old global, digital food and travel network for millennials, whose $80m backers have included the Food Network owner Scripps. TasteMade lets users explore cuisine from
around the world through a mix of original content and user-submitted videos. TasteMade has been described as the equivalent of Food Network for mobile-first viewers and it’s growing fast.
The LA-based company is focused on food, travel and lifestyle programming for the “connected generation”, has a global audience of 100m monthly uniques, and its biggest markets in the US, Japan and Brazil. It is also working with Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo to create digital video aimed at Hispanic millennials living in the US. But the company has yet to make a profit. A SnapChat boss says: “TasteMade has succeeded in becoming a digital brand with a really strong voice. Too many digital publications are about driving the audience with click bait. Tastemade’s approach is very fresh.”
TasteMade’s co-founder Joe Perez says: “There’s a whole new generation of young people who were just as interested in food as their parents when they watched it on TV. They wanted to see it with people of their age, as opposed to having older stars doing it.” TasteMade currently averages 1.5bn monthly views, primarily through social media. It is competing directly with BuzzFeed, whose Tasty channel on Facebook and YouTube averages 2bn videos monthly,
Tasty, BuzzFeed’s surprise package: Most food media are deeply into the whole subject of cooking. But not BuzzFeed whose (almost) stand-alone Tasty brand has seemingly sprung from nothing more than working out how best to master video on smartphone. It now claims Tasty is now the largest food network in the world after just 18 months, reaching 500m uniques every
month. Proper Tasty, its UK counterpart, has accumulated 2.5bn views since its launch a year ago. Tasty is now global and has channels in France, Portugal, Spain, Germany and Japan.
It all started with the Facebook-only Tasty cooking channel whose five Facebook pages now have more than 100m ‘likes’ combined. Its videos regularly get tens of millions of views. In January, Tasty set the record for the most video views by any publisher in a single month, generating 3bn total video views across YouTube, Facebook, Vine and Instagram.
The videos – which are between 30 seconds and two minutes long – are a simple combination of stop-motion shots, simple on-screen instructions, and colourful ingredients and cooking tools for young viewers who want accessibility more than gourmet cooking. Trying to make the process ‘as real as possible’ means crisp, clean visuals of flour sputtering out of bowls, drops of batter escaping their pans, and imperfect vegetable cuts. The “hands and pans” videos are optimized for Facebook’s autoplay feature, which starts playing videos without the sound on.
Tasty has become the powerhouse of BuzzFeed’s Facebook video strategy, accounting for some 50% of BuzzFeed’s total video views. It also, significantly, represents the first major steps in BuzzFeed’s strategy of publishing content directly to social media. The mastery of native advertising enables it to build revenues for this content without having to drive traffic back to its own website or to rely on Facebook or YouTube to sell the ads: it is, literally, publishing not merely promoting on Facebook and SnapChat. This is win-win because Facebook’s algorithm favours not only video, but also content that lives natively on its pages and doesn’t redirect to another website.
The BuzzFeed cooking phenomenon is now being rolled out across the world and is expanding into different forms of content, including Tasty Junior (cooking with kids), Tasty Happy Hour and “Mum vs. Chef” – a nine-minute show about mums and chefs with a secret ingredient. And, soon, Tasty will coming to broadcast TV via BuzzFeed’s partnership with shareholder NBCUniversal.
Cookpad, going global from Japan: What had long been the world’s largest online recipe service was launched in Japan in 1998. More than 2.5m recipes have so far been posted on the site, from traditional regional Japanese specialties like grilled-squid pancakes to exotic
Western recipes for pasta Bolognese and cheesecake. The site has over 60m monthly uniques in Japan. This traffic (with daily scores of 6-9m uniques) has doubled in just four years.
While most recipes are free to users, the company’s profits are strongly propelled by a premium subscriptions service offering access to meal planners, recipe rankings and professional recipes. Cookpad now has almost 2m premium customers which account for some 50% of all revenues (advertising is 29%). Up to 10% of its Japanese users are customers for home delivery from the site’s 6,200 registered retailers. The $1bn company, which IPOd in 2009, started to grow beyond Japan only two years ago. Revenue for 2016 is forecast to be $150m with profits of up to $50m. Earlier this year, Cookpad reported a 73% surge in operating profits.
Cookpad now operates in 15 languages across 57 countries, and attracts an additional 29m monthly uniques outside Japan. Some 50% of these non-Japanese users are Spanish speaking, 29% are in Indonesia, and the site has only 1m English speaking users. But, with a total of 90m uniques and growing, it will not be long before the English-speaking world catches up with Cookpad.
After the global players come a widening range of media and retail companies large and small which are fighting for a slice of the food market. In Australia, News Corp has now brought its food magazines, newspaper content, online media and celebrity author-chefs like Donna Hay under the Food Corp brand which claims to reach almost 9m people (50% of all Australian adults). Its biggest brand Taste has more than 40,000 recipes online and an audience of 4m monthly uniques. It all looks like the test for a potentially global brand, presumably to be promoted by the company’s newspapers in the US and UK, alongside its digital property classifieds. But with a twist: “The next exciting opportunity is the audio component for food because as we move into the connected kitchen the recipes start actually being available to our appliances. The biggest complaint I get is, ‘when I swipe the page, I dirty my iPad’. Imagine if the iPad can tell you what to do next. Audio for recipes, no-one is tackling it in the world, we want to do it. We’ve got print right and the digital experience right – the next is audio. Food will keep growing, it’s going to be endless.”
In the US, the New York Times cooking site has more than 17,000 recipes, 7.5m monthly uniques and has attracted 650,000 subscribers to its accompanying newsletter. The newspaper now sells recipe meal kits in partnership with Chef’d, a US meal-delivery startup.
Daily newspapers everywhere are trying to exploit recipes (of course) and there are plenty of other fast-growing digital services. In the US, Yummly is now claiming 15m monthly uniques, and Foodily – “the world’s largest recipe search engine” – gives users access to over 2m recipes. In Australia, outdoor advertiser APN’s Catch smartphone app offers Sydney bus commuters free wifi and menu planning (with an e-commerce link to retailers). And the whole meal kit business is growing rapidly in almost every market.
But will online cookery begin to resemble general news where so much of the content has become commoditised by digital services? Once again, it may all be down to whether the content itself really is more distinctive than the technology which delivers it. Although the growth in online recipes might seem already to favour the techies, food is a huge global market which consistently captivates the world’s consumers in ways that the news never does. The winners may, therefore, be much more diverse. There’s a lot to play for.
Great British Chefs
As ever, real business success in a crowded market will be achieved by the largest mass market operators and by high-quality, targeted specialists. The imperative is to avoid being in the squeezed middle. One of the more exciting digital specialists is the London-based Great British Chefs (GBC), which was launched in 2010 as an alternative to celebrity recipe sites.
Its distinctiveness is in the branding: recipes created by some of Britain’s most successful chefs whose restaurants have aggregated no fewer than 200 Michelin stars. Marcus Wareing, Simon Rogan and Nathan Outlaw (eight Michelin stars between them) are among the 200 chefs and bloggers who have contributed an impressive portfolio of more than 3,000 recipes (at least 50 new ones every month) together with beautiful bespoke photography, and video. This is no Tasty operation but is the very ‘coffee table’ of online recipe services – something for Brits to discuss at dinner parties.
GBC was described recently as “the work of many chefs operating at the top of their game in the UK….with interviews, features, hundreds of recipes for cooks of all abilities, great ideas for kids and information on seasonal ingredients. There are several accompanying apps and a great shop with cookbooks, fine ingredients and cheffy experiences.”
It all started with an app and a Facebook page and now has more than 1m followers across all platforms. It has about 750k monthly unique viewers, most of whom visit every two weeks and spend more than two minutes reading at least one more recipe than the one they came looking for.
The glossy digital package is the brainchild of CEO Ollie Lloyd whose Unilever marketing background shines through the emphasis on branding. First, there was Great British Chefs, then came Great Italian Chefs and the company has similar domains registered around the world, ready for activation. “I have always been inspired by brands that owned content and talent and were able to find various ways to monetise their assets (think everything from Star Wars to top Football Clubs).”
He was backed by family and friends, including travel entrepreneur Vimal Khosla and film producer David Parfitt (“Shakespeare in Love”, and “The Madness of King George”). It’s a startup made for media interviews and, in another neat story, Lloyd recounts the conception of Great British Chefs: “We were having breakfast and discussing how hard it was to find great and inspirational food content online. We got excited by the potential of apps (our first business model) and quickly pivoted into a web based approach. We also believed that chefs were the new rock stars and yet the media is obsessed with people who look great but don’t know much about food!”
He’s focused on British foodies: “The reason we’ve maintained a premium audience is that we don’t think like a publisher. We think like a brand. The fundamental question is ‘who is going to buy my product?’, and you design everything to make sure that the products you’re
building are right for that target consumer. That brand-centric approach means that you don’t end up doing things that aren’t relevant for that audience because it’s got to be relevant to the brand.” The spin-off Great Italian Chefs has 40 chefs (and a staff member) creating English language content in the same way as its British counterpart, with an emphasis on the country’s regional cuisine.
Lloyd adds: “Our vision has always been to give foodies the inspiration and tools that they seek to deliver against their foodie ambitions. Be that recipes, how to cooks, advice on the best bbq or information about foodie topics. At present, we have only tackled the UK group of chefs that are at the top of their game and the best of the best in Italy.”
Today, the 13.9m annual visits to GBC are claimed to be almost twice the duration of those to other UK food sites like Delicious, Jamie Oliver, Nigella and BBC Good Food. Its revenue comes from integrated campaigns for some 30 food brands including Barilla, Lavazza, Sarsons, American Express, Unilever, Fevertree and Tilda. The Lavazza coffee campaign typically featured cook schools, private dinners, chefs endorsing the product and demonstrating recipes using it, social media, and online ads.
Recently, GBC has diversified into consultancy. It has also launched the first of what may become a series of research papers, on Dinner Party Habits, in collaboration with WPP research group Kantar: “We fundamentally understand foodies, food trends and can help manufacturers reposition their brands from where they are today with a deep insight on food and also into the way brands connect with audiences and content.” And, each year, it organises the swanky Great British Chefs Dinner which has raised more than £1m for UK children’s charity the NSPCC over the last five years.
‘World class content’
Lloyd exudes a founder’s enthusiasm: “We have established a model where the creation of world-class content from the best chefs and bloggers in different culinary markets attracts premium consumers, a diverse range of brands and associated revenue streams. We absolutely see ourselves as the gatekeeper to the UK’s foodie. There is no one else – Jamie, Delia, Nigella, BBC Good Food – none of these brands has anything like the kind of commitment to aspiration and premium culinary techniques that we do.”
It is certainly the kind of business integration that has often been the hallmark of successful companies in specialist media. But there’s something about this stylish six-year-old food content business that really is surprising. Great British Chefs has got the content, branding and a dedicated audience that is growing at 30-40% per year. But this is a business that will have an estimated revenue in 2016 of only £1.3m and – six years after launch – is not yet profitable and has soaked up some £4m of investment funding – so far.
You surmise that the modest financials are the result of a 15-person company funded lovingly by Lloyd’s friends and family. They have built a solid base but have achieved neither the revenue growth nor the steep path towards profitability that might have been demanded by competitive investors, especially in a red hot market. Another symptom of the relaxed funding is the relatively small number of those paying clients.
The chase for profits
This is a case study, with real challenges. There is clearly an opportunity for high-quality niche services for audiences who want to learn to cook the food they eat in restaurants and on their travels. Great British Chefs ticks a lot of boxes. But it may need to move faster to consolidate its position. It needs to bind together its ‘members’ to increase their loyalty and engagement in the face of many distractions and the profusion of online recipes. But it must also generate much more revenue from native advertising, e-commerce, research, events, and consultancy. There are plenty of possibilities.
A range of recommended GBC food products, appliances and utensils might – for this elite audience – almost match the cachet of the Good Housekeeping Institute’s highly-valued endorsements in the US and UK. The same franchise approach might be taken with consumer research for food companies. A company with highly-engaged ‘members’ could sell a lucrative testing-through-buying service to food companies seeking to spend those expansive promotional budgets.
There’s scope for the kind of exhibitions and demonstrations that underpin the profits of so much specialist media. Lloyd might even want to compete with the newish UK companies whose home deliveries of recipe kits are said to have increased by 65% in the first half of 2016. And his occasional pop-up ‘cookery schools’ could even become a branded national chain.
Although GBC’s monetisation seems logically to depend on maintaining its loyal non-paying audience, the New York Times and Cookpad identify the possible opportunity – eventually – for premium subscription services, especially linked to e-commerce. But the explosion of free recipes online – which shows no signs of slowing – may mean that the real value of a business like Great British Chefs will be in the depth of the community it has built. The views, attitudes and behaviour of its ‘members’ can make them an especially valuable resource for suppliers. The value will be in the quality of its audience engagement and data it collects. But it all costs money.
The company may need more investment to push it into profit at a time when the inexorable online move towards video and audio content is ready to morph into an even more costly consumer appetite for virtual reality and AI. Media will always need to keep up with the tech. The risk that smart functionality can upstage even the best content is highlighted by an Indian startup called RecipeBook whose ‘Snap n Cook’ feature uses AI. The app tells users: “So grab your phone and start snapping shots of all the ingredients you have and then watch a collection of recipes which can be prepared using these ingredients”. But, then, the Amazon-Allrecipes deal shows how such tech can also become an effective partner for great content.
Great British Chefs is not the first high-quality content business to discover it is easier to build a substantial digital audience than to generate the revenue to pay for it. The growing competition should prompt Ollie Lloyd’s loving shareholders to keep faith and also seek collaborations with potential partners in tech, retailing, events, research-consulting and even broadcasting. They too are wondering how best to capitalise on the food media boom. All the ingredients are there.♦
UPDATE 28 April 2017 (Digiday)
BuzzFeed’s Proper Tasty Facebook channel has shifted its editorial focus from food tailored to Western palates to more global recipes. The UKteam of four people produces between six and 10 videos a week. Previously, these videos featured a lot of gin and tonics, afternoon tea and more Western-influenced food like pizza and Victoria sponge cake. Now, the editorial mission is to make the channel feel like a global food hall. This month, BuzzFeed produced recipe videos on Japanese beef cheese croquettes, Asian-style barbecue ribs, North African-style eggs and Filipino-inspired chicken adobo.
The approach seems to be working. After posting several videos a week in January that featured international cuisine, the median number of shares for videos per month has grown by 200 percent, according to the company. BuzzFeed didn’t have the exact figures, but it internally refers to any video that reaches 200,000 shares on Facebook a “hit.” Asian-inspired dishes are particularly popular — one Korean-style barbecue beef recipe has been shared more than 270,000 times.
“We weren’t fully capturing the value of a local team in London,” said Tasty’s general manager, Ashley McCollum. “They have exposure to such a diverse set of cuisines that other cities and teams don’t have.” McCollum said BuzzFeed figured people in the UK would want more global food, and the subsequent increase in the number of shares supported that. “There is no data scientist in the room saying, ‘Make more meatballs.’ Data should help you prove or disprove a hunch.”
Proper Tasty launched December 2015 as the first international arm of BuzzFeed’s popular Facebook food channel, Tasty. While BuzzFeed imagined that Proper Tasty would attract a local audience, it didn’t expect the videos to contribute to its global audience growth. “It wasn’t just a local team creating local inventory,” McCollum said. “It became clear we had to continue investing in international growth. Now, each hub makes the whole pie bigger. It’s not a spoke-and-wheel model but a network effect.” Tasty’s global channels create about 120 original videos a month, excluding translated videos. When people widely share a video in a particular region, BuzzFeed will translate its recipe and share it in other regions. The company translates about 80 videos per month. (Digiday)
Food for thought