If Tom Colicchio was your neighbor you’d ask him which knife to buy, right? And you’d definitely ask your sister-in-law Dorie Greenspan about her favorite rolling pin.
And now you really can.
Online retailers with products selected by experts and sometimes tailored — by you — to your specific interests are the new face of culinary marketing. Featuring celebrity “curators” like Colicchio and Greenspan and editorial superstars like Ruth Reichl, the sites aim to cut through the volume of online items and pioneer a new era of product endorsement and editorial content.
“Think of it like Facebook,” says John Caplan, founder of OpenSky, an online retailer where members “follow” their favorite celebrities to receive product recommendations and discounts. “On OpenSky, you choose the best people that are relevant to your passions and interests and they share fantastic items with you.”
Founded in April, OpenSky already claims 500,000 members, Caplan says, and a 50 percent rate of returning buyers. Gilt Taste, launched just a month later, tows a less distinct line, merging high-quality editorial — led by Reichl, former editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Gourmet magazine — with sales of artisanal products.
Food magazines have always carried advertisements for stoves and refrigerators and spaghetti sauce. And celebrities have always endorsed products with a swoop on their shirt or a watch on their wrist. So what’s new?
“It’s not like just being photographed wearing an item,” says Liz Lynch, senior specialist at the Burlington, Mass., digital marketing consultancy e-Dialog. “It comes across that this is something the celebrities themselves have discovered and now they’re sharing it with you. You identify more with that celebrity. It brings them even closer.”
Caplan is quick to reject the idea that sites like OpenSky are the next incarnation of celebrity endorsement. The curators at OpenSky are paid on commission, he says, sharing the profits from what they sell with the site. None of the celebrities are paid by the manufacturers.
“We buy goods from manufacturers and sell them to consumers,” he says. “There’s no other revenue in our business other than selling products to consumers. And it’s 100 percent transparent.”
And Reichl dismisses the notion that the cozy relationship between editorial and product at Gilt Taste is a new version of “advertorial,” advertising content presented as a story.
“You can’t pay us to sell your product,” she says. “If we sell it, we love it. And if we love it we’re happy to write about it.”
With some exceptions, very little of the editorial in Gilt Taste is directly related to the products they sell. A recipe will often be flanked by links to merchants who sell the ingredients. But only twice since launching have editors commissioned a story about a product, says features editor Francis Lam.
“In both instances, they were stories I would have been proud to run if I were at Gourmet,” Lam says. “And I see a benefit of our business that we can help these producers we believe in, that we can help bring their product to market.”
But some critics say the structure of the website and its self-description as “a digital-magazine-catalog hybrid” present an inherent conflict.
“It’s almost a fig leaf,” says Christopher Hanson, a press critic and journalism professor at the University of Maryland. “It’s all quasi-advertisement, even the stories. You might say ‘It’s obvious, what’s the big deal?’, but it’s a big deal to the extent that anyone relies on any of the stories. There’s the chance that they might not be getting the full skinny on stuff.”
OpenSky, on the other hand, offers “a twist on the old testimonial ad,” Hanson says. “That’s perfectly transparent. A person wouldn’t be misled by that.”
Caplan insists that each curator at OpenSky is a “chief merchandizing officer,” hand-selecting the items he or she will offer to followers. Cookbook author Greenspan says she takes pride in the items she features, and that the venture is a natural outgrowth of communication with her famously loyal fans.
“I have things that I really love, and people often on my blog will write and say, ‘What do you use for baking pans?’, ‘Where can I get’ whatever it is I show in a picture,” she says. “I would never have the time to actually find these products people are asking me for. I’m not about to set up a little boutique in my kitchen. So it’s a great way to give readers what they’ve been asking for.”