The Infatuation, the food guide-turned-media platform-turned ‘360 marketing partner’, is primed to diversify its monetization strategy beyond branded content – a strategy that’s so far seen it bring food culture to the likes of Nike and Amex and unify internal brand teams with its plug-and-play approach.
Nearly a year after securing $30m in funding from Jeffrey Katzenberg’s WndrCo, The Infatuation’s co-founders found themselves ticking off a bucket list item. They were producing content and events for Nike, the brand that was number one on their wish list of partners when the two music execs first dreamed up the idea of a restaurant discovery platform in 2009.
Nike and The Infatuation are an odd couple on the surface: one promotes fitness and sacrifice, the other wants to help you find the best slab of tiramisu in town. But from the beginning, Chris Stang and Andrew Steinthal knew their particular brand of restaurant curation would have to partner with the power of non-endemic brands to make money on the saturated foodie media scene.
Meanwhile, brands such as Nike, Samsung and American Express have been leaning into the idea of food as a cultural bridge to consumers in recent years.
“Ten years ago, I’m not sure Nike would have built a whole media plan and a shoe around the idea of a reluctant runner, who, when asked in research what makes them run ... said a burger, fries or pizza,” says Steinthal, the platform’s chief revenue officer (Stang acts as chief executive).
That insight has led to a season-long series of events that combine jogs led by the Nike Run Club App with a pop-up restaurant catered by a range of New York City restaurants handpicked by The Infatuation’s editors.
Sealing the deal may have been a case of “right place, right time” for The Infatuation, which had spent ten years previous building audience trust by publishing unbiased, unpretentious restaurant and bar reviews, But, Steinthal added, “we had also put in so much work over the years, getting to know the Nike folks and setting ourselves up for the right moment”.
“We’ve been waiting for this opportunity for a long time.”
The Infatuation transformed itself into a US food guide into a branded content consultancy roughly five years ago, when Stang and Steinthal quit their jobs in music to run the business full-time.
Now it publishes digital food guides in 39 different cities and employs staff in New York, LA and London. It's also racked up a client list filled with household names, including Don Julio, Coca-Cola and Bud Light.
“We never set out to create a big media company,” says Steinthal. “I always thought we're more like an Uber or an Airbnb – we just want to be that thing where when you're out and you want to figure out where to eat or drink, you turn to us.
"The business model is about creating digital and IRL [in real life] experiences for brands that connect food to culture in ways that don’t suck.”
The Infatuation often acts as a foodie consultant to brands’ creative and media agencies but works directly with clients roughly 50% of the time. The content it publishes, the social network it’s grown, the influencer relationships it’s built and the events it produces means it “can do the job of many agencies”, according to Steinthal, with an ability to cover PR, experiential, social, influencer, marketing, media and more.
The offer is an effective marketing tool for brands – but only if there’s enough internal communication among the brand team to handle a 360 offer.
“Not everybody is set up take advantage of it,” Steinthal admits. “That's something we face every day. But I think most brands have got to a point where they’re really trying to minimize [silos] and find solutions that are more effective and efficient.
"We can be one of those solutions in many ways – that's some of the conversations we have at a wider level.”
The Infatuation’s 10-year growth has been largely organic – something that Steinthal regards as a blessing and a bit of a curse.
On one hand, the brand’s unabashed quest for authenticity (it never accepts free meals in exchange for reviews, and only hires anonymous, unbiased food writers) has garnered a committed, influential audience that brands are dying to tap into.
On the other hand, VC cash proved difficult to secure in a climate of high-growth tech investment, one in which saying "you need to be patient, because we're building a brand” is not always what investors want to hear. And when The Infatuation plays the RFP game on media tenders, Steinthal finds his engaged audience can be overlooked as diminutive when measured up against other platforms on a spreadsheet.
So now, The Infatuation is “starting to hit the gas on serious growth expansion” – and that means looking at monetization routes outside of integrated brand partnerships.
It’s launching a paid-for membership scheme in October, which will offer fans of the brand access to exclusive swag, events, brand discounts and access to its previously free-to-use Text Rex recommendation service for either $50 or $100.
Then there’s the “treasure trove” of first-party data The Infatuation has gathered across the last decade, which Steinthal believes can be pulled into trend reports and sold into companies looking for the Next Big Thing in food and culture.
Finally, the company plans to reboot Zagat, the restaurant review brand it bought from Google for an undisclosed amount in March. With a 40-year-old heritage and an older audience, The Infatuation hopes the deal will give it added credence among the more traditional ‘foodie’ audience.
It has plans to “reinvent” the brand in The Infatuation’s image by the middle of next year.
All of this will be driven by organic growth into other markets. Right now, a launch into Texas is definitely on the cards, as are other UK cities outside of London.
But Steinthal is adamant any horizontal growth should be accompanied by solid vertical growth, too. And the branded content offering has been earmarked as a revenue stream to keep evolving, regardless of other emerging revenue drivers.
“[Branded content] certainly has a ceiling to it, in a way,” he explains, “but I also think we're just starting to crack the surface on where we could go with it.”