The Masterchef recipe for success

There’s a lot more to the success of Masterchef than the cooking.

During the first series of Masterchef, I remember watching a repeat episode on a Sunday afternoon (okay, yes, this is what my life has come to… watching telly on a Sunday afternoon), and thinking that this was going to be a runaway success. I even wrote a letter to the Green Guide editor (which was published) saying that Masterchef was a “revelation” and would be one of the great successes of 2009. It is so nice that I sometimes get my predictions correct (I’m pretty good at guessing the gender of  babies in utero, as well).

So, why is Masterchef such a success? Has home cooking become the new trend? As Gina McColl says in BRW (6 – 11 August, 2010), “A cooking reality show, that doesn’t even allow viewers to vote has broken records. A peak audience of 5.7 million people – more than one quarter of the population – watched the finale (of series two) on 25 July, up from 4.1 million (for the finale of the first series). Many pundits claim because it is feel-good (after we got all nastied-out by the Big Brother phenomenon), and because it nails the cocooning trend of the ‘noughties that was turbo-charged by the GFC.”

But there are other, subtler undercurrents in the Masterchef phenomenon, that need to be teased out if we are to understand its success.

At first glance, the tribal nature of the show is not dissimilar to BB, Survivor, and even the Amazing Race. It’s still about groups, people getting on together, liking each other, working toward a goal, and yet competing. The fact that the audience isn’t involved in “voting” them out, perhaps takes some of the negativity out of it, which was appealing to many audiences.

The food thing is important as well. Food is such an integral part of bonding, families, groups, and friends. It is used as a form of conciliation in many cultures. We sit and eat together, and we feel good.

It taps into the whole desire for “authenticity” trend, which in fact is something that fills the gap of class, religion, even community. The problem is that authenticity is a construct as well. And if it is over-marketed, it may start to lose its effect (I do have an issue with the “authenticity” trend. It is a bit like nostalgia, in that when people talk about authentic, they really mean an ideal. Something that is a form of fantasy).

The search for “real” people doing extraordinary things, has to be part of its appeal. The whole idea of the show is built around this desire to build a (metaphorical) bridge between the “real” self, and the “desired” self.

So, we can see ordinary people like Fiona (a sweet, young schoolteacher), who can cook, and then have a nice life beyond the show. It’s this link between the imagined existence (the desired self) and the reality of everyday life (the real self).

As an audience member, we can become infatuated with the idea of this great food, and adopt the language (such as plateing-up), and the form (making food more than just fuel).

I guess you could even say the show invokes a romantic ideal of food, so we can escape from our everyday reality and the passage of time (which is counted in seconds, and we live each one of them).

But I’m not sure if it is a Gen Y and X thing (I hate those labels), as some have speculated. Rather, I think it taps into a deeper need for connection with people. Maybe it is the delivery method that could define the groups it is talking to, but the more general “idea” of it is universal.

As I said, I remember seeing a very early episode in the first series, being so impressed because you didn’t feel dirty having watched it. It was fresh (including the ingredients), the judges were nice to the contestants, everybody seemed to enjoy being there.

But it also took me back to a moment in Jamie Oliver’s series on setting up the Fifteen restaurant in London (broadcast in Aus in 2005), where he asked one of the trainees how the food tasted, and she said “Autumn”, and he hugged her (with “His Majesty King Raam by Lemon Jelly playing in the background). It was one of those moments, but I recall thinking that this is what TV should be like.

You shouldn’t feel grotty after watching it. You should feel good about it. And it should make you want to get up and do something.

From a marketing perspective, the exploitation of the MC idea has to be subtle. It can’t be logos and brands everywhere. The future of promotion has to be about subtle “nudges” rather than in your face sales pitches. So, I think the very obvious Coles sponsorship is a bit dangerous for the MC brand.

And I also think that they need to be careful not to over-exploit the MC brand. As I say in the BRW article, “Managers and marketers tend not to look beyond the surface – the actual ingredients of a success. What they should be doing is stepping back and trying to understand its form.

When I talk about form, it is a much more abstract idea than simply reproduction or repetition (this is why sequels are rarely as successful as the original). My experience teaching in the MBA program at Deakin is that very few people get this – they simply take the basic “rules” and then translate them to their context, e.g., libraries become bookshops.

It’s partly an outcome of the objective focused managerial mindset which will always lead to mediocrity and copying. If you are constantly setting objectives, or looking for rules, or trying to find the “answer” you miss the opportunity to be creative.

So, I think the mistake that managerialism makes is to only look at surface issues when trying to translate success. Even the way that we teach management and marketing, which is basically the Harvard case study approach, really only examines the gross shape, structure, or components of success.

But when I think of form (and I think of it as a former musician, mostly) is the “voice”, the phrasing, the tone of the success, rather than trying to pin down “the top three reasons for its success”. So, my argument is that we translate that idea of form to management and marketing, rather than simply reproducing or extending the same product with additional bells and whistles.

A show such as Masterchef will lose its gloss if it becomes too marketed, too driven by the wrong objectives. They need to take the “form” of these shows, and translate them to new shows, rather than simply flogging the format forever.


Some other posts that might be of interest:

Obesity and marketing

Pricing junk food out of the market

And from the Sydney Morning Herald – The Great Burger Con: Why we fell for Angus branding

This entry was posted in Advertising, Blogroll, Branding, Consumer Behavior, Essay, Human Behavior, Philosophy, Social Psychology, Tribal and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Masterchef recipe for success

  1. Gerard says:

    Paul, do you think the reason the McDonald’s Angus Burger “it’s a little bit fancy” campaign has worked so well is due to MasterChef? Has the show taught us all to value the quality and, perhaps more importantly, the exoticism of the ingredients which is now what the marketing people at McDonalds are now tapping into?

    • Paul Harrison says:

      Hey Gerard

      I think the McDonald’s Angus Burger has highlighted our willingness to make choices based on very little information. In the interests of efficiency, we have evolved to have a tendency to believe claims, so the branding of Angus beef as being high quality, is enough to convince us that it must be “a little bit fancy”. It doesn’t mean that suddenly everyone will want to eat an Angus burger, but what it does mean is that people who are willing to be nudged (those who don’t have a huge problem with McDonalds), will feel that they are bit a bit classy if they are eating flesh from an Angus cow. The thing is that Angus is just a brand (in the literal sense), and there is no evidence to suggest that Angus beef is any superior than Belgian Blue, or Gloucester Beef. It was a marketing exercise, designed to create the perception that Angus beef was was superior to other beef, started by the American fast food industry in 2002. The chances are the vast majority of fast food customers seeking something “a little bit fancy” had never heard of Angus beef (or any other breeds of cattle) prior to McDonald’s promoting the breed as high quality. The breed doesn’t really matter to taste (which is all about perception). It’s the idea of Angus, rather than the taste (see my posting on the effect of expectations on performance evaluation). So, there may be some connection to Masterchef, but it is tenuous.

  2. Dr Ray says:

    Hey Doc as always some great thoughts. Not sure about Managers – objectivity – mediocrity idea. What would you suggest managers do if they can’t be objective. Shouldnt they cast vision and aspiration to the creatives that they manage?
    Also is what you call form what I call brand essence?

    • Paul Harrison says:

      Hi Dr Ray

      It may not be clear, but the bit about objectives (rather than objectivity) was saying that when we plan our lives around objectives, we limit the capacity to be creative. Schools that teach to a test (which is objective based), will result in students knowing a lot about the things that the education department (which is a branch of the current ideology of government) has defined is important, but it leaves no scope for children to explore factors that are not on the curriculum. To some degree, setting objectives (particularly in schools), sends a message that you don’t trust teachers, or your staff.

      In terms of brand essence, I think the term is limiting, partly because it assumes that there is “one” essence, and partly because it is about the brand, rather than about the creation and form of the experience, product or thingo. People who create, tend to create based on an understanding of the general rules, but then allow themselves to make mistakes, challenge and question the rules, and thus extend the experience. So, there is a degree of brand essence in my discussion, but I think even branding is limited.

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