Thought Leadership

‘It’s very unhelpful for brands to be superficial’

Jessica Gunn, Editor of Waitrose Food on why International Women’s Day demands more than a branded cocktail.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


Despite women being the primary purchasers and cooks of food at home, they are vastly underrepresented in the food and hospitality industry. Only 17% of all chefs and 8% of Michelin-starred chefs in the UK are women, while across the food sector in 2021, female representation at board level was only 30%. The reasons for the disparity are complex, including structural shortcomings, discrimination and inhospitable workplace cultures, but it’s clear there is still a long way to go to achieve gender equality in the food world. 

It is a thorny challenge that Waitrose has tackled head on in its campaign to find and spotlight Britain’s 10 most influential women in food for the March issue of Waitrose Food. In a welcome break from the pink-washing that often accompanies International Women’s Day, the magazine has instead chosen to invest its time and expertise in platforming women making a genuine difference. 

Jessica Gunn, Editor of Waitrose Food, says that the women selected have ‘truly changed the paradigm when it comes to food.’ She explains that the idea for the initiative was like many of the best ideas based on a realisation with many layers. Gunn, who has 7-year-old twins and a 3-year-old, has what she describes as, ‘a very intense life.’ She explains: “I am the editor of a great food magazine and it's a big responsibility, but I also have other responsibilities.” Responsibilities which also relate to food; but rather than flat planning features or spearheading initiatives these responsibilities may be more mundane but are nonetheless valuable; feeding her family.

“I’m worrying about the shopping, all the planning of meals. I manage all the food and when I talk to other women it’s often the same,” she says. Citing a recent survey from industry trade magazine, The Grocer, she notes that 77% of women have everyday responsibility for food preparation and planning. This juxtaposition of the invisible labour of women taking the lion’s share of the everyday planning, preparation and cleaning of cooking, against a media back-drop dominated by male celebrity chefs is what drives the authenticity and clarity at the heart of this campaign.

We are a long way from equity and it’s very unhelpful for brands to be superficial.

Jessica Gunn, Editor of Waitrose Food

Purpose works

Credit must also go to Gunn for the idea itself not being swept away in the hurry to get things done; the metaphorical dishwasher where ideas go to die. Instead, Gunn and her team set about creating a meaningful campaign with a long-term commitment. This is not a last-minute ‘what shall we do for International Women’s Day?’ scramble, but a commitment which kicked off many months ago.  

“International Women’s Day is jammed with amazing initiatives, but I have had a lot of emails this week asking me to come to a special bar and drink a special International Women’s Day Cocktail,” explains Gunn.

She believes that readers see through such a paper-thin approach. “We are a long way from equity and it's very unhelpful for brands to be superficial,” Gunn adds. For Waitrose and the John Lewis partnership as a whole, the editorial approach is genuinely tied to a unique, trusted point of view. It’s clear that it’s an editorial agenda driven not just by a desire to grab attention, but instead build trusted relationships over time. 

Influence for good

The campaign spotlights Britain’s 10 most influential women in food and includes winners Asma Khan, the Kolkata-born former lawyer who is an advocate for social change as well as a restaurateur and author, to Ukrainian-born chef Olia Hercules. After the Russian invasion of her home country Hercules and a group of former colleagues founded #CookForUkraine which has raised over 800,000 for Unicef.

The winners, who have been selected from an expert panel of all-female judges, represent a step change in what constitutes influence. A far cry from the personal brand-obsessed, shouting chefs that have gobbled up column inches and high-profile television deals respectively, these women are opening the doors for others. 

Multifaceted, creative and purpose-driven, the women on the list were selected on the basis that they were not just making the world a better place through better-tasting food, but they are also making the world a fairer place. Gunn shares that while focusing on the ‘Food to Feel Good About’ positioning for Waitrose an interesting shift appeared clear to the team. From a bakery supporting refugees to Chefs campaigning for charity causes, we noticed a lot of the people doing the work in this space were women.  

“There is a body of women making a positive impact on the world we live in through food,” says Gunn. Women who might not fit into the stereotype of influence created by male food influencers, but ones who are in many ways contributing to a redefinition of what influence is. 

“The point is they are contributing to a different structure and scale of aspiration,” adds Gunn. “We wouldn’t necessarily want to be Gordon Ramsey - he is the head of a very successful restaurant empire, but what scale is it that we measure success against?” she asks.

It is an interesting question; and one that is increasingly important for brands seeking to build both trust and relevance in an overwhelming world. Gunn believes that the need to have a purpose and make a positive impact on the world are increasingly powerful forces for individuals and brands alike. 

“Our generation was taught a very different narrative, it is only later in life that we think what tiny bit of good can I do in the world?” she explains. A shift which is about embracing the broader purpose of the work you put out into the world, as well as the positive impact it can have on your industry. 

The power of generosity in marketing

In the face of significant financial pressures, it is easy to be cynical about the importance of purpose in brand building. Yet Gunn building this campaign sparked interesting conversations about ‘generosity’. A trait shared by all of the women selected for the list. 

While we are far from a tipping point Gunn believes that a new way of thinking about what success and progress means is developing. She explains: “30% of those at board level in the food sector are women. Everything in the world comes back to structure and until organisations support this change in a true way not in a pinkwashing way there will not be progress.”

Significant structural change, new narratives and investment are needed to contribute to better futures for women. It is difficult to ignore the fact that it is women who are at the sharp edge of the cost of living crisis. So is it time to move beyond performative feminism?

“A lot of the reason why women are stressed right now is because food costs are going up, childcare costs are going up. These are the things we are really worried about.” She warns that: “When times are tougher things like flexible working or job shares are seen as nice fluffy luxuries.”

Yet far from being a distraction, these are the tangible things that will really make an impact on women’s experiences every day, not just on International Women’s Day. 

There is a big trend amongst consumers who increasingly expect brands to do some of the thinking for them.

Jessica Gunn, Editor of Waitrose Food

Brands doing the work

As brands and consumers alike grapple with the cost of living crisis and geopolitical uncertainty; marketers have increased their focus on building trust. In a complex and unsettling time, the role and comfort provided by well-known high-street brands is clear.

Gunn explains: “There is a big trend amongst consumers who increasingly expect brands to do some of the thinking for them.” In essence, a trusted brand is a shortcut for consumers who want to make ethical and economical purchase decisions. 

“People are really busy and in a way, it's nice to walk in somewhere and now the brand has done that work for you,” she continues. She believes that brands doing the due diligence, setting standards and living by them will be key to future growth.  

“Younger consumers have a higher expectation that brands will reflect their personal beliefs and brands really recognise they have to pay attention. Waitrose genuinely does have this incredible model of partnership which is a genuine differentiator,” she adds.

This commitment to standards is echoed in the editorial integrity of Waitrose Food, which is recognised across the industry for its commitment to craft and quality journalism. (Gunn was awarded the BSME Editor of the Year Food in 2019.) Dentsu acquired the title’s parent company John Brown Media in 2015.

“Our readers are intelligent and engaged people and we aren’t going to sell them puff, we give them information and we engage with them,” Gunn explains. 

She believes that it is important to make time to create those moments to say something important and have that moment of depth. A moment that this campaign, alongside the effort and integrity which underpins it, makes the most of.

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