In demand: Dana Cowin and branding in the digital age

Every era has its hero. Dana Cowin was editor-in-chief of Food & Wine, one of the last bastions of swoon-worthy food magazine heavies, for 21 years. Over those two decades, Cowin and her team were gastronomy mile markers. They thoughtfully crafted the words and images that defined those legendary pages, inspiring a generation of curious eaters. 

It’s no surprise that the woman who revolutionized how people read and learn about food and wine is busier than ever. 

A Day in the Life

Cowin gets more done in a day than most people cross off in a week, and that’s just how she likes it. She is the chief brand advisor for Dig Food Group, host of the podcast Speaking Broadly, and a coach for others in the industry. 

“I will sometimes begin the morning with a coaching client,” says Cowin, who consults with industry professionals eager to figure out how to make meaningful changes, just as she has in her own life. “For me, it was so hard to have the perfect job for so long and such a pain point, because I couldn’t leave until I could visualize what was next and take that leap.” 

Cowin relishes devoting time to Dig Food Group, which just opened 232 Bleecker with Chef Suzanne Cupps, the chef of the celebrated Untitled. New Dig projects include openings in Philadelphia and more to come. 

“Then, potentially there is lunch and putting in some time working at The Wing, where I pop in, open my laptop, and get a few emails done,” says Cowin, who supports nonprofits like the Food and Finance High School, New York City’s only culinary public high school. 

In Cowin’s world, a big chunk of every perfect day would be reaching out to someone for her Speaking Broadly podcast, which airs each Wednesday for listeners on Heritage Radio Network, iTunes, and Stitcher. This spring, Cowin will also launch her own zine of the same name. 

“This is one of the most exciting creative projects I’ve ever worked on, filled with people and meetings, and weekends with a week’s worth of email to catch up,” says Cowin. “I’ve been busy going out to new restaurants to see what people are eating and thinking about, so food adventures are always high on my list.”

When Cowin took over running Food & Wine in 1994, she and her team changed the magazine in a way that no one else had done before. It gave readers a different way to look at the world through the lens of food, rather than houses or fashion. Her zine aims to be of this particular moment, when food writing has become very personal.

“I like to help other people shout out broadly, pay it forward to pay it forward, and it goes to the heart of what people consider in their daily lives,” says Cowin.

Branding in the Digital Age: Staying a Step Ahead

The recent H.O.S.T. Summit + Social was founded by industry powerhouse producer Shari Bayer, the brains behind Bayer Public Relations. (The H.O.S.T. acronym stands for hospitality, operations, services, and technology.) Bayer brought her popular All in the Industry podcast to life in the inaugural event last month, when Cowin moderated a panel called “Branding in the Digital Age.”

Since leaving Food & Wine, Cowin has worked with several companies on branding projects, so she understands how the myriad digital tools available today can feel complicated and noisy to chefs and restaurateurs.

“So many chefs I know have become disenchanted with PR, believing they can do that part on their own and develop relationships one-on-one with journalists to pitch their story,” she says. “Plus, they often don’t have the budget for PR. Some of that is pragmatic and some is confidence, owning your own channels.”

To win the digital marketing race, Cowin favors the long game. But that requires vision and dedication. 

“Authenticity is the starting point to any brand, because these days everyone can sniff out the inauthentic,” says Cowin. “There is so much in the world that is the same. To me, the difference between authentic and inauthentic is the difference between original personalities, not cobbled together through an algorithm.”

As an example, she naturally turns to food. “You can create a menu that’s a series of greatest hits because you know your diners like fried chicken or smashed patties and cheese, but that doesn’t have a long-term value,” she says. “Underlying any conversation about brand is real personality, as opposed to manufactured personality.”

Cowin’s H.O.S.T. panelists included Krystle Mobayeni, co-founder and CEO of BentoBox; Jen Pelka, founder and owner of The Riddler in San Francisco and New York and founder of Magnum PR; photographer and author Melanie Dunea; and Erik Bruner-Yang, the chef and owner of Foreign National (Maketto, Brothers and Sisters, and Spoken English, among other concepts). The panelists’ approaches were wide ranging, each successful in its own way. 

“The four people on the panel each had very strong feelings about who they were in the world, and they approached branding with differing degrees of control,” says Cowin. 

Bruner-Yang sat on the far end of the “anti-brand” brand, insisting that the brand emanates from him. “People follow him not because they know what is coming next, but because they trust him and what appeals to him,” she explains. “If Eric decided to do something, people would trust that because they trust him. He is both approachable and inaccessible.” 

In contrast, photographer Dunea’s brand rests on classic training and thoughtfulness. 

“Melanie is not as conscious of creating a brand as she is following your heart and keeping it narrow, using one or two methods such as a website and Instagram, and she is appreciated for her aesthetic,” says Cowin. 

Cowin praised Pelka for her tremendous consistency and phenomenal visual sense, which comes through in a very recognizable brand. For example, each of The Riddler’s tables broadcasts the bar’s name.

“Her sense of brand is part of what drives her business,” Cowin says. “She is very programmed, and her greatest expertise is in brand creation and creating community.”

Finally, Mobayeni’s BentoBox brand starts with her mission, outlined in vision pillars with clear steps to execution. “This is great for growth, because all 120 people in her company know those pillars and follow that vision throughout every person on the team,” Cowin explains.

Tips for Digital Marketing Success

Even with the alphabet soup of expertise fueled by online searches, burning a path to digital marketing success can sap a chef’s creative juices. They can take a page from Cowin’s own personal approach to begin. 

Find your north star. “I always start with a counsel of friends I trust to situate myself, and perhaps for you this will be a mixed bag of people on your team,” says Cowin. “Don’t do anything until you know what you stand for.” 

Recruit a partner. “Chefs can handle some basics on their own, such as direct public relations and Instagram communications,” advises Cowin.When it comes to where a chef should spend money, though, expertise matters.” 

Put storytelling first. Future communication may rely on digital marketing, but the heart of branding is storytelling. “Success is in telling your audience who you are and taking control of the story, rather than putting it into someone else’s hands,” Cowin suggests. “Dig posted a story on Medium, controlling the narrative, and it got picked up by other outlets. We did it for our customers, but the press came afterwards.”

Continuing to move forward, Cowin remains focused on growing her devoted listeners of Speaking Broadly. Produced via Heritage Radio Network which carved the path to food radio, the studio broadcasts live from two recycled shipping containers inside Roberta’s Pizza in Brooklyn through member community and partner support. Cowin’s recent episodes have included “Death and Salad” about food safety and “Life After the Last Course” about stepping out of the cooking spotlight. Speaking Broadly airs on Wednesdays at noon. 

Follow Dana Cowin on Instagram at @fwscout, and listen to Speaking Broadly and All in the Industry on Heritage Radio Network, iTunes, Stitcher & Spotify.

Photos by Ken Goodman Photography

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