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Marketing Expert: How “Fixer Upper” Stars Are Building an Empire

Success of Down-to-Earth Gaineses Offers Lessons for Business Behemoths

By Carrie Handwerker

Chip, Joanna and Crew Gaines wave

Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune Herald, via AP

The stars of HGTV series "Fixer Upper," Chip and Joanna Gaines, along with their youngest son, Crew, wave during the second annual Silo District Marathon in Waco, Texas, on Sunday. The couple's success is setting a new agenda for retailers, said Yajin Wang, assistant professor of marketing.

When Chip and Joanna Gaines began their rise to popularity with their HGTV home makeover series, “Fixer Upper,” they were knocking down walls, renovating kitchens, replacing roofs—and building a marketing empire.

Their success is setting a new agenda for big-box retailers and elite fashion houses alike, said Yajin Wang, assistant professor of marketing in the Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Viewers can’t seem to get enough of the couple’s “modern farmhouse” design style (shiplap!) and family-focused vibe. The five-year run of “Fixer Upper” led to book deals, a magazine, a Texas retail complex and exclusive home decor lines for Target, Anthropologie and others. Now, the married duo is gearing up for a summer 2020 launch of its own television network with Discovery Inc.

It’s not surprising that consumers are so captivated by Chip, “Jojo” and their five kids, said Wang. They’ve hit on the marketer’s holy grail: a good, authentic brand story.

“The audience really loves their personalities, their life, and that’s why they have a following,” she said. “Viewers connect with their traditional family values, their support for each other, their interactions with their children. They portray this image of a loving couple who are just like your neighbors on their show, their Instagram feed and all social media. That’s what sells.”

Wang studies luxury products and how consumers interact with them. She said that marketing today is about selling more than products; it’s about selling a whole lifestyle.

Traditional luxury brands, she said, often struggle with this. But increasingly, they’re making an effort. Even the 165-year-old French fashion house Louis Vuitton now is pushing home products, she said, in the drive for better profits. “They have increasing sales in their furniture line, which you probably didn’t even realize they had,” Wang said.

Wang recently visited luxury brand Hermès in Rome and said the brand’s separate home store, carrying items like fine china tea sets and curtains, was packed with shoppers. “People are investing more in their homes and want to showcase a certain lifestyle.”

Consumers use their social media feeds to show that lifestyle. And that’s where the shifts are most evident.

“That’s a big contributor to the popularity of home design and renovation. It used to be that only your relatives and friends who visited your home would see your design choices,” Wang said. “But now, you can post the pictures and people thousands of miles from you can see your beautiful home.”

Bragging about material goods doesn’t have the same effect. “If you post a Chanel bag, that probably won’t receive a lot of positive feedback. But you post an image from your home that portrays a loving family interaction, that will get more positive reactions from your social network.”

Wang said this shift is why the Gaineses’ authenticity is striking a chord with followers and leading to so much success for their lifestyle brand, Magnolia. What they share isn’t always glamorous or perfect, but it is sincere. “They sometimes post photos of laundry or kids’ messes. These flaws bring them closer to consumers.”

Their underdog story also has an endearing quality. “People like these stories of coming from a small town and making it big. Waco, Texas, is kind of like that town.” Even the show’s name, “Fixer Upper,” plays into that underdog effect.

But can Chip and Joanna Gaines survive as other brands seek to adopt their playbook? They can, Wang said, as long as they true to their image and their brand.

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.