Visible across almost every media channel, the name Annabel Langbein has become a brand in its own right. We chat to the woman behind it to find out how she created a media empire that now has its eye on the US market.
Matty Mclean’s media diet, the angry outsider, stunning stats, jolly japes and Annabel Langbein.
What were the early days in your career like? In my early 20s I did a lot of travelling and everywhere I went I cooked, though I had no professional training. When I was living in Brazil I started a croissant business, and when I was living in Ibiza and in London I cooked too. When I came home I put my focus into consultancy, doing such projects as designing the food for New Zealand at the world expos in Seville and Taejon. In a way, my television series, which has since been broadcast into 93 territories, has been a continuation of that journey. The marketing work I did at that time also gave me a deep understanding of what consumers want and the retail environment. I approached one of the supermarket groups with a big idea around freshness and assisted them with their marketing, including producing a magazine, fronting television ads and developing in-store merchandising, all designed to make cooking easy, accessible and affordable for people. In 1991, I designed and developed a programme called ‘How to feed a family of four on $100 a week’ in conjunction with the Child Health Foundation. It was all free and we printed nearly a quarter of a million little booklets that went out all over New Zealand. The demand was huge. I think that this was the moment when I entered the broader Kiwi consciousness. From there I set up my own publishing company and began to produce cookbooks, from which the Free Range Cook Book and TV series evolved.
How did you get your big break in TV?
Launching the first series of my TV show Annabel Langbein: The Free Range Cook in 2010 was a game-changer for me. I had posted some little video clips onto the internet and multinational media giant Fremantle Media contacted me offering to back and distribute a TV series. For me it was the culmination of an interlinked journey and combined everything I’d learned about food during 20 years of cooking, travelling and living off the land, together with my passion for promoting New Zealand food.
What’s it like having a name that’s also a brand?
I try to live my brand and be my brand so it is genuine, not just some construct. People who visit us in Wanaka often can’t believe that the garden and cabin are exactly how they appear on my TV show. It is all actually real – it’s the way we live. And we started with nothing – just working with the wilderness and planting and growing. I also work with a fabulous team of people up in Auckland who do the behind-the-scenes work, which helps manage the distinction between myself and my business and frees me up to be creative and have the space and energy to think about the big picture and how we can develop our vision.
Why do you find it necessary to work across so many media channels? I don’t think you can expect people to seek you out. You have to be where they are, and these days with media being so fragmented you have to work across multiple platforms.
In an attempt to be everywhere, some brands seem to battle to leave a clear mark on the media channels they’re operating in. So, how do you ensure that you’re not everywhere and nowhere at the same time? It’s important to always be consistent with your messaging so people get the same brand experience across multiple channels and their experience is seamless no matter where they choose to find you. Achieving genuine connection and engagement with your target audiences is key, so fast-track options like sharing trending videos or endlessly giving away your product might result in seemingly impressive numbers, but you need to understand what your real goal is. Engagement has to be earned. My team and I work really hard to create a quality experience, whether that is TV, a book or social media. It also takes time to create a brand of trust. I started my Facebook page in 2010 and have grown my 100k fans almost entirely organically, which results in a very high engagement rate. People are always incredibly surprised to learn I had over eight million page views on my website in the past year. Similarly, I have a substantial database and extremely high open rates on e-newsletters because we consistently deliver relevant, quality content.
What does it take to be successful across different channels?
New Zealand is such a small market that commercially to remain successful you need to reach every bit of that market. You can’t afford not to. It’s a very time-consuming and expensive approach, though, as you can’t just push a button and be everywhere at once, you need to tailor to the platform, even from a logistical perspective, so people can view and read and enjoy. And for a small company like ours, this requires discipline about always managing limited resources. I have always been curious about new ideas, and in a way been a natural early adopter. In order to have relevance you have to be, otherwise you end
up at the back of the line. For example, I think we were the first company in New Zealand to publish computer-to-plate (CTP). We have always tried to be innovative, not for the sake of it but to be relevant and also efficient. I also think that because our television series is broadcast into so many territories we’re aware that not everyone can access our books in a traditional form, so we are always asking how do we reach them, how do we find those partnerships and relationships that are going to provide enhancement for both parties?
Why is sustainability so important to your brand? You can’t be all things to all people, and you have to have integrity and be true to the values you espouse. As a foundation member of the Sustainability Council of New Zealand I’m acutely aware of the challenges facing our planet. If we aren’t sustainable then what does the future look like for our children and their children?
How do you go about marketing your brand these days? It’s always a multi-platform approach. A television show is one thing but you need to line up all the other elements to support it. Often today, it also means partnering with other media and aligned brands, but doing it in a manner that enriches the whole experience for the consumer. The idea that people need three touch points before they will engage with a brand is as relevant and as challenging as ever. There is so much clutter out there, you need to have a consistent message and stay focused while all the time evolving and keeping up to date with new innovations.
How significantly has the digital age changed what you do on a daily basis? There’s a real sense of immediacy about social media and I love hearing on a daily basis from people who are enjoying my recipes and making them on their own. For companies such as ours, working from the geographical isolation of New Zealand, it enables us to communicate directly with an international audience and stay at the forefront of international trends.
What are some of the key challenges that you’ve faced in your business? There will always be challenges. I think that has been the most useful thing to know. There is always another hill or mountain and it doesn’t get easier. It changes but it doesn’t get easier. Every time you get to the next part of the journey there are new challenges, new things to learn, new decisions, new ways to try to make a path. You have to back yourself.
What advice would you give to young Kiwi entrepreneurs? Make a plan and stay focused. You can always change and update the plan but you need something to work to that other people can work towards too. Always act with integrity, and be sure to make decisions, even if they are the wrong ones. If you don’t, then you stay stuck in the same place. Bring in the best people you can around you. Take weekends off, and make time in your day or your week for yourself so you can be strong and fit and healthy.
What is the secret to longevity in the fickle media industry? The people who I most admire in life are those who are curious, and I have a few in mind who are now in their 80s. As soon as you stop being curious you stop being relevant, and can get too caught up in what you think rather than maybe what other people might want or need. It’s all about looking outwards and adding value for your audience.
What’s next on the cards for Annabel Langbein? America is a very exciting opportunity for us, given that my TV series will be launching into the USA from September for a two-year run. It’s such an accolade to be picked up by public television in the USA, and it’s the culmination of many years of planning and work. For example, when I shoot my TV series I always shoot an imperial version as well as the metric version, to ensure we have a product that will be relevant to the US market. PBS takes only a few shows a year from outside of the USA and its audience is perfect for us. It’s like the BBC of America, running shows like Downton Abbey that get huge viewership. If we can join the dots there, and find companies to work with who share the same values, then together we can make a much bigger wave. I know it won’t be easy, but growing a brand is very much a journey and this stage of the journey is tremendously exciting.