Why BuzzFeed is licking its lips over Tasty

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BuzzFeed's food platform Tasty has evolved from gimmicky food porn to a brand exploring every angle of food culture--and it has built an audience that brands are starting to notice.

Media is always precarious, but for many brands born of the sharing age, it’s reasonable to wonder whether they will ever make it onto sound commercial footing. BuzzFeed, more than most, has been hit with frequent questions about its viability: A story in the Financial Times last April suggested it had slashed its revenue projection for 2016, though this was strongly disputed by the company.

However, the publisher might have finally found its golden goose in food platform Tasty.

Having only launched in July 2015, Tasty's growth has been staggering: The brand’s main Facebook page is now the ninth biggest on the entire site (excluding Facebook’s own pages) and, with 85.5 million fans, is creeping up on pages for Leo Messi, Eminem and Vin Diesel. At its current rate of growth, it could supplant Messi’s nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo at number one at some point in 2017.

"The big question about this idea that we’re going to create franchises and build entire editorial properties on platforms that we do not own, is can you build a business—and for two years, every story about our strategy has ended with a question mark," admits Tasty’s general manager, Ashley McCollum. "And Tasty is the real answer to that: We can."

To have a business, of course, a huge audience isn’t enough: the platform also needs to be attractive to advertisers. But McCollum says Tasty is attracting brands with a combination of its scale—in the UK, it reaches 21 million people monthly, or 65 percent of Facebook users—and format, which replicates the style of the editorial video.

"A lot of brands want us to help their audience see the product differently, or a transformative use of the product," she says—an example being Baileys, which Tasty incorporated into a set of recipes such as French Toast.

Outside the most obvious target advertisers of food and drink brands, McCollum was particularly happy with a campaign run for kitchen appliance brand Oster to launch its "7 Minute Grill": the first of three planned videos, featuring a cheese- and jalapeno-stuffed burger, caused the product to sell out in key retailers, meaning the other two videos had to be put on hold.

Tasty’s output began with the short, bird's-eye view recipe preparation videos that have become a mainstay of internet content, and initially had a strong bias toward what McCollum calls "stunty, aspirational food porn." Examples of this include over-the-top concoctions like pizza cones and churro ice cream bowls that were designed to send the brain’s appetite and excitement centers into overdrive, and sometimes seemed more like conceptual art than food anyone would really make.

McCollum says this kind of content came from a team that was "focused on social—they were entertainers, they weren't food experts." The early work of Tasty stemmed from ideas like this 47-Layer Dip on BuzzFeed itself, conceived to celebrate 2013’s Super Bowl. "Internet food culture" was, at the time, a bit of a contradiction in terms—but the platform has quickly evolved in both form and content.

First, it started putting out simple recipes for things like garlic parmesan potato wedges and realized, against expectations, that the demand for these was at least as high as for the stuntier ideas. It has gradually increased its output of healthy recipes, and according to McCollum, these are now performing twice as well as the median video.

Tasty, she says, has "made people really aware of what their food is and what they’re eating. When you become more aware of your food, you make better choices."

Alongside the main Tasty Facebook page, BuzzFeed, in a partnership with Mondelez, runs the health-focused Goodful, which has 15 million fans of its own. Goodful is one of a suite of brands now based on the model established by Tasty, including DIY and craft platform Nifty, and the sport-focused Sweaty.

There’s also the international tentacles of the brand, including UK-based Proper Tasty, itself a big platform with 17 million Facebook fans. Proper Tasty began with what might uncharitably be seen as a naive remit from an American media giant with a US-centric worldview: to offer what former prime minister Gordon Brown might have called British recipes for British food lovers.

It has now been retooled to reflect London’s status in the international food scene. "Very quickly, we figured out that Brits don’t just eat British food—obviously!" McCollum says. "The thing we wanted to lean into was the fact that in London you have access to the most diverse cuisines in the world."

The change in strategy is part of a globalization of Tasty’s content; everything made by Proper Tasty, along with other national sites such as Tasty Japan and France’s Bien Tasty, is translated into six languages and distributed globally. This partly reflects the demands of advertisers, McCollum, says, that are increasingly looking for pan-European buys. 

The other shift has been a growing ambition in formats: alongside the recipes, Tasty has moved into cooking challenges, mini-documentaries, and "how to" videos. One of these, How to regrow fruit from your kitchen, last month racked up the most views in 24 hours of any of Tasty’s videos to date, and has so far been watched 244 million times.

Tasty also had a hit with "Worth it," a longer format video series in which cheap and expensive versions of the same item—such as a steak—are compared.

The newer formats allow Tasty to offer different things to brands in sectors unrelated to food, without veering from its approach of keeping all sponsored content stylistically in line with the editorial. McCollum argues the platform’s strength comes from the way that food intersects with almost everything in life.

"You eat three times a day, your relationships with people are largely over food and drink, your first date is, family reunions are," she says. "It’s this big thread in our lives." It has worked with Toyota, for example, on Tasty Date Night, in which couples take a drive and then compete in a food challenge.

It has also worked with American Express, something she sees as a natural fit because "a big part of food and cooking is saving money." McCollum says that while she expects food and drink brands to remain a heartland for Tasty, it’s non-food that is growing faster.

The big question for Tasty now is: can it sustain its scale?

McCollum admits that the type of content the brand makes will inevitably continue to spawn imitators. "It’s not Game of Thrones," she says. "it’s not this long-form show that feels inaccessible and that you can never recreate. A lot of companies have sprouted up just to copy what we’ve done."

However, she is bullish about the status and identity that BuzzFeed has built over the last decade of questionable viability. "If you look at just the format [of Tasty], and think that’s it, that’s the secret sauce, then you fail. What you don’t see is that underneath all of BuzzFeed and underneath Tasty is a complex web of publishing systems, decades of building these audiences, and that takes time.

"We are not a food company in a vacuum—my team of producers have worked on scripted videos, they’ve been on screen, behind the camera, they’ve written for the site. They’ve really seen the whole breadth of BuzzFeed."

This article was amended to make clear that Buzzfeed disputed the FT claim that it substantially cut its internal revenue projection for 2016.