Borough Talks: How can the media help your food business?

Categories: News and previews

Borough Talks, a series of public debates presented by Borough Market, explores some of the most interesting and important issues relevant to today’s food world. In this year’s second talk, our guest panelists tackle the topic of media—namely, how it can be used to promote your food business

Nowadays, it’s rare to go to a restaurant and not, at some point, be blinded by the flash of an enthusiastic Instagrammer snapping a photo of their dinner / drink / anything else that comes to the table. It would seem that our love of documenting what we eat isn’t going anywhere and, love it or hate it, there’s no doubting that the influence of social media can be powerful. But when you’re the owner of a food business, just how can you use it—and other, more traditional forms of media—to your advantage? Our panel of experts gathered in the Market Hall to share some insider knowledge.

Sybil Kapoor: Food writer and broadcaster whose influential cookbooks include Simply British and Taste: A New Way to Cook. Her latest book is Simply Veg: A Modern Guide to Everyday Eating.

Milly Kenny-Ryder: The writer, singer and blogger behind the online food, culture and fashion magazine Thoroughly Modern Milly. Named one of the Evening Standard’s top 10 food influencers on Instagram.

Pete Lawrence: A major influence on the food landscape of British television. While head of features at the BBC, he worked with the likes of Nigel Slater, The Hairy Bikers, Nigella Lawson, Lorraine Pascale and Rachel Khoo. Author of The Allotment Cookbook.

Jane Levi: Writer and academic who specialises in the history of food and utopianism.

Alana Spencer: Winner of the 2016 series of The Apprentice and founder of Ridiculously Rich by Alana, a bakery brand that has grown under the spotlight of the media.

How have different forms of media changed over the last few decades?

Pete Lawrence: The industry has changed dramatically in that time. What was popular on television 30 years ago is very different to what is now. ‘Chop and chat’ shows, as they call them, are now few and far between. I think people are more demanding of television now and want other types of food-related show, whether that be campaigns, food and travel or something else. There aren’t many slots on TV and the competition is very high.

Milly Kenny-Ryder: Instagram came along in a big way three or four years ago. Initially, like everyone else, I got an account to post photos of my cat or my friends having a barbecue. It was only when I went travelling for five months that I realised I could use it alongside my blog to represent what I was doing in a more beautiful way. Before long, people wanted me to curate beautiful photos for them and that’s became something I [and others] could make money out of.

Social media is constantly changing. I feel like I go on holiday for a week and there’s a new function to grasp. Now there are so many different platforms it’s impossible to do all of them well and have a presence on all of them, unless you’re giving up your life completely!

Alana Spencer

If you look back to the history of food, have there been similar revolutions in mass communication?

Jane Levi: As a food historian, I often think gosh, we haven’t changed much. The medium may have changed, but the messages and desire to communicate with one another haven’t. One of the moments in which there was a huge explosion in food-related communication was in the 18th century, when it became cheaper to publish cookbooks. There were lots of people who had jobs in private houses or who had claimed to have cooked for royalty who started producing cookbooks that the newly wealthy middle classes would buy. In many ways, we haven’t changed at all.

What about the idea that restaurants develop special dishes they know will photograph brilliantly—would you say that’s true?

Milly Kenny-Ryder: I think there’s a movement now, whether it’s intentional or not, of people going to restaurants wanting ‘that’ dish, which they’ve seen online or on social media. Often when a new restaurant or menu comes out, a select group of Instagrammers will be invited in to try it, everyone will take a picture of a particularly photogenic dish, and that becomes the dish that everyone wants when they go there. It’s crazy. I think you can’t help but be a little bit inspired by people’s delicious-looking photos online. For me, going to a restaurant is just as much about getting a good photo as it is enjoying the food.

Are some platforms more effective than others?

Milly Kenny-Ryder: Instagram is a way of communicating in a focused way—in a way perhaps we haven’t been able to previously. It’s not necessarily about who you know or whose contact details you have, it’s about what you post. People have access to you regardless of whether you have an existing reputation.

Alana Spencer: You have to work a lot harder at ‘old’ media, I think. Social media is hard too, though: mine is a Facebook page about cake, but people still feel the need to say personal things about me! Different types of social media have a very different feel to them. Facebook is more of a community, while Twitter is more of a statement thing.

Milly Kenny-Ryder: When companies ask me how to use different platforms to get people to come to their restaurants, I say: put something news-worthy on Twitter, post a beautiful photo of a dish on Instagram, then on Facebook there’s more interaction, so you can do things like post a picture of the staff party.  

Pete Lawrence: Television has a very broad audience and social media has a very targeted audience, so social media is a much better way to promote your business. Television gives you mass appeal, but you have to go about it in a slightly different way and be less overt about it.

Alana Spencer: With television, in my experience, when you’re on screen you’re the big thing, then when you’re not, you’re old news. It’s so fickle. There’s only so much time you’ve got to make the most of that exposure, whereas on social media if they click that follow button they’re buying into you.

Milly Kenny-Ryder

What advice would you give somebody starting out with a new business?

Milly Kenny-Ryder: Every business these days needs to have an Instagram page. Be very aware that people are going to look you up online and make judgements, so create things that you feel really represent what you’re all about. Don’t go wild and just post things in the spur of the moment.

Pete Lawrence: It’s about authenticity and knowing what your story is. Even if your brand doesn’t work or if it’s rubbish and doesn’t sell, at least you have been true to who you are. Also, if you don’t have anything to say, don’t say it!

Alana Spencer: Go on a reality TV show? I think the most important thing is working out a business model and knowing what you really want your brand to be. If you don’t know where you’re trying to get to, you’re never going to get there.

How can I promote my business on a shoe string?

Milly Kenny-Ryder: Spend time on social media interacting with like-minded people, making people aware of you. People think you can put up a pretty picture with a few hashtags and it will just fly, but I spend at least an hour a day liking other people’s photos, searching and interacting with people I think will like my brand. Comment on one person’s photo, then you’ll notice they’ve commented on yours and a few of their followers will come over. It does grow, gradually.

Pete Lawrence: Use social media to listen. One of the things we use is an advanced search in Twitter. You enter a few key words, and suddenly you’re introduced to a whole community of people that are tweeting about the same thing and those are the people you want to contact. So you can use social media for marketing without actually saying anything.

Audience at Borough Talks

Do you wish you didn’t have to do all that, or do you believe these media channels will take you forward?

Alana Spencer: It’s a lot of work, but I think if you can get even a few bits of it right it can be really great for your brand. I think it’s only been a good thing for me. Saying that, the whole point of the business model going forward is word of mouth. I’ve got an ambassador in every county and they are shouting about my products in their area. They will sell them at farmers’ markets, cafes and delis, then hopefully word will spread. So, I think there’s only so much media can do for me.

Jane Levi: I think it was ever thus. Yes, there are people who publish a book and don’t care if anyone reads it or not, but I think most writers do. People have always done and do whatever they can to use the channels they’ve got to promote what they’re doing. It’s about using the tools at your disposal to get to your audience.

How can brands get their products on television?

Pete Lawrence: Generally speaking, the Ofcom rules are, you can’t give undue prominence to anything. There can be no negotiation over a product going on screen. With product placement, companies are paying to have their products on screen, but it’s a collaboration between a lot of people—an ad agency, a broadcaster—and the rules are complicated. You can have a product placed so you can see it, but we’re not allowed to say it’s a good product. It’s quite hard, really. If you don’t stick very closely to the rules, you will be fined, which as a producer is really not worth it.

Are blogging and social media changing the way people approach TV?

Pete Lawrence: People probably know about the ‘Delia effect’: when she mentioned a certain pan being a little gem, sales would go from 200 to 90,000. The world has moved on since then. Social media is more instant, so it feels like a big ask to get people to watch a programme for an hour. We can see the effect of that in the TV viewing figures, which are going down. Having said that, I don’t think TV is going to go away, in the same way books and newspapers and radio haven’t gone away. It just needs to work out its position in the new world.