Brand Nigella: Will court case affect her career?
- 20 December 2013
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Nigella Lawson built a multi-million pound empire around her image as a Domestic Goddess. But could the recent revelations about her private life and alleged drug use have damaged her brand? Not if #TeamNigella has anything to do with it.
Since her first book How to Eat was published in 1998, Nigella Lawson has become famous for churning out easy and delicious recipe books, with TV series full of casual cooking, knowing winks and midnight fridge-raids.
However after photos appeared in June showing her now ex-husband Charles Saatchi with his hands around her throat outside a London restaurant, the focus has been very much on her life outside the kitchen.
The scrutiny intensified when Lawson was accused of being an habitual drug user by Saatchi and her two former assistants, who were on trial for defrauding the TV cook.
"It's a living soap opera," PR consultant Mark Borkowski told the BBC, assessing Lawson and Saatchi's court appearances.
During her testimony, Lawson admitted taking cocaine several times, but insisted she did not have a "drug problem". Instead, she described a "life problem" in her former marriage to advertising boss Saatchi.
"You've got two very public figures fighting it out in court and any PR man will try and encourage his client to never go in court to watch their dirty laundry being aired, washed and the stains removed for the edification of the general public," said Borkowski.
However, an opinion poll commissioned by The Sunday Times earlier this month showed that 39% of the public had more sympathy for Lawson than for Saatchi, with only 2% firmly on his side.
In fact, 10% of those polled by YouGov said their perception of Lawson had now improved.
"The general consensus was that Nigella had played a blinder," wrote The Observer's feature writer Elizabeth Day, the weekend after Lawson gave evidence.
Day told the BBC this week, "[Nigella's] someone who I, and many other normal people, feel a kinship with because we've followed her story and we've cooked her recipes.
"[She] came across as someone who was incredibly dignified... who was incredibly smart under cross examination, who had some fantastic ripostes.
"She's not the person who was alleged to have defrauded anyone, and she's not the person who was photographed with their hands around someone's throat.
"And yet it seemed very much as if her life choices were on trial," Day continued.
"I actually think she's come out of this incredibly well and, if anything, more popular than before."
£50m book sales
The power of 'Brand Nigella' became obvious during Christmas 2006 when Lawson sent sales of goose fat soaring, after she said in a television interview that it was the essential ingredient in a festive roast dinner.
Lawson's cookery books have made her the UK's third most popular published chef - only Jamie Oliver and Delia Smith having sold more, according to figures from Neilsen bookscan.
Her sales dipped last year, before the revelations about her personal life, with her most recent collection, Nigellissima, down 37% compared to her 2010 title Kitchen.
Nonetheless, total sales of her cookery books passed the £50m mark in December 2012.
The latest figures show sales have in fact increased in the past few months, rocketing up 117% in the last four weeks alone (although it is likely Christmas shopping has played a part).
"In terms of the strength of her brand I'd say, of all celebrity chefs that exist, she must have one of the strongest, and certainly the biggest, connection with a certain target demographic," said Mark Lowe of PR agency Third City.
Lowe contributes a blog about branding to marketing website The Drum, and recently wrote about Lawson. He told the BBC he thought the "certain ironic quality" surrounding the Domestic Goddess brand could help it survive.
"Maybe with Nigella people do understand there is an element of almost pantomime theatre to it," he said.
"But also people like to buy into it. It's kind of like Christmas, they know it's a bit superficial but they like the feeling it gives them."
Public support for Lawson remained strong throughout the court case, with the #TeamNigella hashtag trending on Twitter and even briefly adopted by Lawson herself.
David Cameron was just one of the famous faces to declare themselves firmly in her camp - much to the dismay of the judge, who ordered the jury to disregard the Prime Minister's comments.
And there are no signs that sponsors and publishers are getting cold feet.
Channel 4 has confirmed Lawson's new 10-part series The Taste UK will air in early 2014, as planned.
A spin-off of hit US cookery show The Taste, it features Lawson and fellow judges, American chef Anthony Bourdain and French chef Ludo Lefebvre.
Lawson's US TV career continues to blossom, with the second US series starting on 2 January.
"She was heading for fame in America and I'm afraid the great American heartland is not interested in what happens in a court in Isleworth," said PR expert Borkowski.
"They're more interested in the relationship they have with that celebrity, and they love a Brit."
The issue has made the US papers, however, where media commentator Michael Wolff described it as "a kind of Downton Abbey for media aristocrats".
Writing in USA Today, he said: "Nigella, with a preternatural PR acumen that has made her a figure of international style and vivaciousness, has, handily, moved from drug abuser to heroic victim - of 'intimate terrorism'."
Lowe said celebrity brands tended to take a battering only "when there is a central allegation of hypocrisy involved".
"People aren't arguing with [Nigella's] skills as a cook, or her image as a person, or the quality of her books," he explained.
"What they are seeing are genuine human problems that people experience all the time. It just seems like quite a sad story."
In court Lawson said she was "not proud" of her cocaine use, but had taken it six times with her first husband John Diamond in 1999 after he found out he had terminal cancer - and once again during her marriage to Mr Saatchi.
"This is someone who is acquainted with tragedy and who we can relate to all the more because of that," said Day.
Borkowski added: "Many celebrities have admitted to drug use. Kate Moss was 'outed' by a Sunday tabloid. That was supposedly going to destroy her career - it turbo-charged it."
"[Nigella] is clearly getting some great advice. She looks amazing and she's got a career in this country and a massive career in America.
"That momentum will carry her," said Borkowski. "This will be a nasty little blip."